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Copenhagen rabbi says Jews now fear leaving homes

Yitzchok Loewenthal says twin attacks which left two dead were acts of terrorism; slain synagogue guard prevented worse loss of life

Copenhagen's main synagogue on Krystalgade (photo credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD/Wikipedia)
Copenhagen's main synagogue on Krystalgade (photo credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD/Wikipedia)

Rabbi Yitzchok Loewenthal, a representative of the Chabad movement in Copenhagen, said Sunday that members of the Jewish community fear leaving their homes following a shooting at a free speech event Saturday and another attack hours later outside a synagogue in the Danish capital.

The shootings, which left two dead and five injured, were “clearly acts of terrorism,” Loewenthal told Israel Radio. One of those killed was confirmed to be a Jewish security guard who was working at the synagogue at the time of the attack. The man, whose identity was not made public, was reported to have prevented a much larger attack at the site, according to Israel Radio.

On Sunday, Copenhagen police fired shots near a train station earlier in the day, killing one person. “The police have fired shots at Noerrebro Station. One person is hit,” Copenhagen police wrote on Twitter. Police later added that they were “investigating if the person could be behind the shootings at Krudttoenden and the synagogue in Krystalgade.”

Police couldn’t say whether the shootings at the Krudttoenden cultural center and in front of the synagogue were connected, but didn’t rule it out. In both shootings, the gunman got away.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, third left, and Jewish community leaders pay their respect outside the synagogue Krystalgade in Copenhagen, on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Odd Andersen)
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, third left, and Jewish community leaders pay their respect outside the synagogue Krystalgade in Copenhagen, on February 15, 2015. (photo credit: AFP/Odd Andersen)

“We are looking for two perpetrators,” police spokesman Allan Wadsworth-Hansen told reporters.

The first shooting happened shortly before 4 p.m. Saturday. Danish police said the gunman used an automatic weapon to shoot through the windows of the Krudttoenden center during a panel discussion on freedom of expression following the Paris attacks. A 55-year-old man attending the event was killed, while three police officers were wounded. Two belonged to the Danish security service PET, which said the circumstances surrounding the shooting “indicate that we are talking about a terror attack.”

The gunman then fled in a carjacked Volkswagen Polo that was later found a few kilometers (miles) away, police said.

Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who has faced numerous death threats for caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, was one of the main speakers at the event, titled “Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression.” He was unharmed after being whisked away by his bodyguards as the shooting began.

Lars Vilks (photo credit: OlofE/Wikipedia)
Lars Vilks (photo credit: OlofE/Wikipedia)

Vilks, 68, later told The Associated Press he believed he was the intended target of the shooting.

“What other motive could there be? It’s possible it was inspired by Charlie Hebdo,” he said, referring to the Jan. 7 attack by Islamic extremists on the French newspaper that had angered Muslims by lampooning Muhammad.

Police spokesman Joergen Skov said it was possible the gunman had planned the “same scenario” as in the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

After searching for the first gunman for hours, police reported the second shooting in downtown Copenhagen after midnight Sunday. Wadsworth-Hansen said that gunman opened fire at two police officers outside the synagogue. They were wounded in the arms and legs but were not in life-threatening condition, while a civilian man was killed. The gunman fled on foot.

Sebastian Zepeda, a 19-year-old visitor from London, said he didn’t want to leave his hotel room after hearing of the first shooting and was text messaging with his mother when the second shooting happened on the street below.

“I was on my bed and I heard gunshots. And my heart raced,” Zepeda said. “All of a sudden the road was packed with police.”

Witnesses in a bar across the street from the synagogue said they saw special police teams moving in with automatic rifles.

Police initially said there were two gunmen at the cultural center but later said they believed there was only one shooter. They described him as 25 to 30 years old with an athletic build and carrying a black automatic weapon. They released a blurred photograph of the suspect wearing dark clothes and a scarf covering part of his face.

Visiting the scene of the first shooting, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called it a “political attack and therefore an act of terror.”

François Zimeray, the French ambassador to Denmark who was at the event to speak about the Charlie Hebdo attack, tweeted that he was “still alive.” Police said he was not wounded.

This photo dated Saturday Feb. 14, 2015, issued by Copenhagen Police, is believed to show the suspect in a shooting at a freedom of speech event in Copenhagen, in a photo believed to be taken on a street camera near to where the getaway car was later found dumped. (photo credit: AP Photo /Copenhagen Police)
This photo dated Saturday Feb. 14, 2015, issued by Copenhagen Police, is believed to show the suspect in a shooting at a freedom of speech event in Copenhagen, in a photo believed to be taken on a street camera near to where the getaway car was later found dumped. (photo credit: AP Photo /Copenhagen Police)

French President Francois Hollande called the Copenhagen shooting “deplorable” and said Thorning-Schmidt would have the “full solidarity of France in this trial.” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was arriving Sunday in Copenhagen.

Leaders across Europe condemned the violence and expressed support for Denmark. Sweden’s security service said it was sharing information with its Danish counterpart, while US National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said US officials were ready to help with the investigation and have been in touch with their Danish counterparts.

Parts of the Danish capital were cordoned off after the shooting near the synagogue but “it’s not a question of a general curfew. People are allowed to travel around Copenhagen, safely,” Wadsworth-Hansen said.

The Danish Emergency Management Agency urged people in central Copenhagen to text “I’m okay” to their families in a post on its Twitter account.

Last month, four Jewish men were killed in a terror attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, days after the Charlie Hebdo attack.

AFP and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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