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World & Nation

Strasbourg remains on high alert; police say Christmas market attack was act of terrorism

Shooting aftermath in Strasbourg, France - 12 Dec 2018
All booths of the Christmas market in Strasbourg, France, are closed on Dec. 12, the day after a deadly attack by a gunman.
(Patrick Seeger / EPA/Shutterstock)
The Washington Post

An attack on France’s largest Christmas market by a gunman with a long criminal record was an act of terrorism, the Paris prosecutor announced Wednesday.

A manhunt is still underway for the gunman, who killed at least two people and wounded 14 others, and was reportedly wounded himself, before fleeing Tuesday night in this eastern French city.

French news media identified the suspect as Cherif Chekkatt, 29, though authorities have referred to him only by his first name.

“Once again, terrorism has struck our territory, in Strasbourg,” said Paris Prosecutor Remy Heitz, whose office leads terrorism investigations across the country.

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Heitz corrected earlier statements that three people were killed. The prosecutor specified that one of the three previously reported as dead was in fact “brain dead” but not deceased. Of those injured, eight were in critical condition, he said.

He said the suspect had 27 criminal convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Earlier Wednesday, a top Interior Ministry official, Laurent Nunez, said that police went to the suspect’s home on the morning of the attack to arrest him in connection with an attempted murder but that he was not there.

Nunez said the suspect became radicalized during one of his many stints in prison and was known to security services. He was last released from French prison in 2015, but German authorities say he was then arrested and imprisoned for theft across the border before being deported back to France in 2017.

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On Tuesday night, the attacker sprayed gunfire into the Strasbourg Christmas market. He then exchanged fire with police and soldiers protecting the market, wounding one soldier and getting shot in the hand himself.

He commandeered a taxi and fled. The taxi driver later went to police and described the man as armed with a handgun and knife and wounded, Heitz said.

Four people with connections to the suspect have been detained for questioning, Heitz said.

Some 350 security officers remain on the scene in Strasbourg, a city on the German border that is one of the homes of the European Parliament, which was in session at the time of the shooting.

A lockdown in the city has been lifted, and schools opened Wednesday, but the country remains on high alert, with border controls tightened and extra security at the other Christmas markets around France.

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Reis declared Wednesday a day of mourning for the victims.

“Faced with this aggression, what must we do?” he said at news conference. “My first thought was that it was essential that today be entirely dedicated to mourning.”

Witnesses interviewed on French TV described two hails of bullets in the frigid Strasbourg night, about 8 p.m. One restaurant owner said he heard the shooting, ran in front of his establishment and saw a body lying outside. Many shops in the city center closed their doors and hid their frightened customers inside.

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Europe has a centuries-old tradition of Christmas markets in the weeks ahead of the holiday, where revelers can drink mulled wine, listen to carolers and shop for gifts in a bid to cheer up the long nights on the continent. In recent years, the markets have become targets for terrorism, because they draw crowds and because they have ties to religion.

Strasbourg, in particular, has been a high-profile target. In 2000, Al Qaeda-linked operatives planned to target the Strasbourg Cathedral and Christmas market on New Year’s Eve, a plan disrupted by German and French authorities. Fourteen people were later convicted in French and German courts of participating in the terrorist plot.

In 2016, 12 people were killed at a Berlin market when a truck plowed through a crowd. That year, several arrests were made in November in Strasbourg, and city authorities threatened to cancel the market if it received serious threats.

Although France has been on high alert since terrorist attacks in November 2015, before Tuesday there had been no significant attacks in 2018. Headlines instead have been dominated by political protests instead, some of them violent, as yellow-vested activists have taken to the streets to contest President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.

Nunez said all protests would be banned for now in Strasbourg.

President Trump responded to the Strasbourg attack Wednesday in the context of an ongoing debate over funding for his proposed border wall with Mexico. On Tuesday, he clashed on camera with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

“Another very bad terror attack in France,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are going to strengthen our borders even more. Chuck and Nancy must give us the votes to get additional Border Security.”

But given that French authorities confirmed that the suspect in the Strasbourg shooting is a French citizen, it was unclear what strengthening borders would have done to prevent the bloodshed.

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