5 detained in Christmas market attack in France

Hundreds of security personnel join search for suspected gunman Cherif Chekatt, who may have crossed into Germany

Two members of the French police unit BRI (Research and Intervention Brigade - Brigades de recherche et d'intervention) walk on the Pont de l'Europe, crossing the border with Germany over the river Rhine in Strasbourg, December 12, 2018. (Frederick FLORIN/AFP)
Two members of the French police unit BRI (Research and Intervention Brigade - Brigades de recherche et d'intervention) walk on the Pont de l'Europe, crossing the border with Germany over the river Rhine in Strasbourg, December 12, 2018. (Frederick FLORIN/AFP)

French authorities detained five people as they hunted Wednesday for a suspected extremist who sprayed gunfire at one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets in the eastern city of Strasbourg.

Meanwhile, medical officials lowered the death toll from Tuesday night’s attack from three to two, and then raised it back to three again. It was not immediately clear why the figures were changed. Thirteen people were wounded.

The government raised the security alert level and sent police reinforcements to Strasbourg, where some 350 security forces are searching for the assailant. Police officials said he was wounded in a gunfight with soldiers after the shooting attack but escaped, and a top official said he might have escaped to neighboring Germany.

The suspected attacker is Cherif Chekatt, 29, with a police record in France and Germany who had been flagged for extremism, police said. Police detained five people in overnight searches around the city, Laurent Nunez, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, said on France-Inter radio.

A terrorism investigation was opened, but the suspected motive for the attack was not officially announced. Nunez said eight of the injured are in serious condition, and the city mayor said some had head wounds.

Witnesses described shots and screams after the gunman opened fire at the Christmas market in the city, which is home to the European Parliament and considers itself a capital of Europe — and promotes itself as the “capital of Christmas.” For several hours, swaths of the city were under lockdown.

The attack is a new blow to France, after a wave of Islamic extremist killings in 2015 and 2016, and amid a month of protests against President Emmanuel Macron that have blocked roads around the country, led to rioting in the capital and put a heavy strain on police.

While authorities urged people in the area to stay inside after the attack, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries told BFM television Wednesday that “life must go on” so that the city doesn’t cave to a “terrorist who is trying to disrupt our way of life.”

The assailant got inside a security zone around the venue and opened fire from there, Mayor Roland Ries said.

One possible reason for the attack: police tried and failed to arrest Chekatta earlier Tuesday for an attempted murder, Nunez said. The suspect had been identified as radicalized during past stays in prison, Nunez added.

Members of the French police special forces RAID conduct searches on a bank of the river Rhine in Strasbourg during a manhunt for the gunman who shot at a Strasbourg Christmas market, seen, on December 12, 2018. (Frederick FLORIN/AFP)

Police were out in force in Strasbourg on Wednesday morning, and the Christmas market was closed. The market, set up around the local cathedral, is a holiday tradition and was the target of an al-Qaeda-linked plot at the turn of the millennium.

Many of Europe’s deadliest terror attacks in recent years have taken place in France. In response to Tuesday’s shooting, the government decided to take the country’s attack risk up a level on the official threat index and to send security reinforcements to Strasbourg, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in Strasbourg.

The hundreds of officers searching for the assailant after Tuesday’s attack, which involved shooting in multiple neighborhoods of Strasbourg, were being aided by two helicopters, authorities said. The assailant confronted law enforcement officers twice, exchanging fire, while he “sowed terror,” Castaner said.

Emergency workers intervene after a shooting near the Christmas market in Strasbourg, eastern France, on December 11, 2018. (Abdesslam MIRDASS/AFP)

The shooter was shot and wounded by soldiers guarding the Christmas market, according to Stephane Morisse of police union FGP Police.

“I heard two or three shots at around 7:55 p.m., then I heard screams. I got close to the window. I saw people running. After that I closed the shutters. Then I heard more shots, closer this time,” said Yoann Bazard, 27, who lives in central Strasbourg.

“I thought maybe it’s firecrackers,” he said, speaking by phone. “And then, as it got close, it was really shocking. There were a lot of screams. … There were police or soldiers shouting ‘Get inside!’ and ‘Put your hands on your head.'”

Another witness, Peter Fritz, told the BBC one of the people killed was a Thai tourist who was shot in the head and didn’t respond to lengthy attempts to revive him.

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