A rabbi, his two young children and another young girl were shot and killed at a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse on Monday morning.
Several more people were injured.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, was on his way to drop off his kids at the Gan Rachi kindergarten, adjacent to the Ozar Hatorah school where he teaches, when he was gunned down along with his two sons Gavriel and Aryeh, 6 and 3 years old. Miriam Monstango, 8, the daughter of the head of Otzer Hatorah, was shot as well and died of her wounds shortly after.
“We’re very sad, but no one is panicking,” said Yves Bounan, the president of Gan Rachi, a center offering a day care, kindergarten and elementary school, a few hours after the shooting. “The parents are slowly picking up their children. We don’t know yet how to react to this.”
The shooting took place at a drop-off point outside the Ozar Hatorah school, at about 8:10 a.m. Police said the man fired into a group of several people.
The shooter is believed to have ridden on a black motorbike and is reported to have used two weapons.
Otzer Hatorah and Gan Rachi are located in the Jolimont part of the city, in the northeastern section of Toulouse. Ozar Hatorah has a junior high, a high school and a kollel, or yeshiva for married men.
Security has been stepped up at Jewish schools across the country.
The school was cordoned off Monday by police, who then escorted other children out. One officer held a distraught girl, her face in her hands. A mother and son wearing a yarmulke walked away from the site, their faces visibly pained. A video camera was visible at the school’s entrance.
“The drama occurred a bit before 8 a.m. A man arrived in front of the school on a motorcycle or scooter,” prosecutor Michel Valet said, adding that the man got off his scooter outside the school and opened fire.
“He shot at everything he had in front of him, children and adults,” he said. “The children were chased inside the school.”
Marc Sztulman, a leader of the Jewish community in Toulouse, confirmed that some students were severely wounded and are still in critical condition.
“We are left in disillusion and despair,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone interview from Toulouse. “We are still in utter shock and disbelief. We don’t know what happened exactly.” He said he had “absolutely no idea” who could be behind the shooting.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Minister Claude Guéant visited the French city shortly after noon.
“Its a tragedy. And it’s a tragedy that there are insane people who are capable of doing such a thing,” Sarkozy told French TV. “I can’t accept this idea than one can massacre Jewish children in front of their school”
Sarkozy visited the school accompanied by Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.
“It’s a day of national tragedy,” Sarkozy said after arriving. “The barbary, the savagery, the cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. The nation is much stronger.”
The chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, told French news channel BFN he was horrified and upset by the shooting. He said he planned to visit the site immediately.
World ORT representative in France Guy Seniak said: “This shows that Jewish institutions have to be very cautious and I expect that we will now see a period where security is prioritized. The important thing is to be aware and not to panic. It’s an old problem: not to make ourselves live in a ghetto while, at the same time, to ensure we have the best security.”
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the killings and branded them an apparent consequence of “murderous anti-Semitism.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “whether it was a terror attack or a hate crime, the loss of life is unacceptable.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was horrified by the shooting.
Police have tightened security around Jewish institutions in the city. The city is reportedly on lockdown as authorities search for the shooter.
Sandler, originally from Paris, reportedly moved back to France from Israel a few months ago. According to the website Behadrey Haredim, Sandler lived in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem and studied in a nearby yeshiva.
A man who lives near the school said he spoke with Sandler just before he was shot and killed.
“I said “Bonjour” to him like normal,” said the 29-year-old, asking to be identified only by his first name Baroukh.
“Then he went out into the school entrance. I heard the shots and I turned around and saw him on the ground. He looked dead. But I didn’t have much time to see who did it because I panicked and started running away.”
The shooting happened in the same area where a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at a bank machine last Thursday, killing two and critically wounding the other. The attack, in the town of Montauban about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Toulouse, occurred not far from the soldiers’ barracks. Four days earlier, a gunman on a motorbike shot and killed another paratrooper in Toulouse. French media reported that the paratroopers were of Arab origin.
Authorities said at the time that forensic analysis showed that the same weapon was used in the shootings in Montauban and Toulouse. Early reports from Monday’s shooting indicate that the same caliber weapon was used in all three attacks.
“It is too early to establish a sure link” between Monday’s shooting and those of the paratroopers last week, the prosecutor said. “But there are elements that justify asking very serious questions.”
In an apparently separate incident, threatening letters were sent to two Parisian synagogues on Monday. According to the French Police, letters saying, “You are the people of Satan, hell awaits you” were sent to synagogues in the capital’s eighth and 19th arrondissements.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.