Algerian man sets fire to synagogue in France, is killed by cops; extensive damage

In Stockholm, police investigating gunfire near Israel’s embassy, with several suspects reported detained

The interior of a synagogue in Rouen, France, that a man is suspected of having set on fire, May 17, 2024. The man was shot dead by French police. (AP Photo)
The interior of a synagogue in Rouen, France, that a man is suspected of having set on fire, May 17, 2024. The man was shot dead by French police. (AP Photo)

French police on Friday shot dead an armed man who set fire to a synagogue in the northern city of Rouen. In Sweden, the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm was sealed off after a shooting early in the morning, according to local media reports.

Mayor Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol said the synagogue suffered extensive damage from the fire, but no one else was harmed.

He said the Normandy town was “battered and shocked” by the incident, adding that “an armed man somehow climbed up the synagogue and threw an object, a sort of Molotov cocktail, into the main praying room.”

Emergency services were alerted after a fire was detected at the synagogue. The man was spotted on its roof brandishing an iron bar and a kitchen knife, said the prosecutor handling the case.

Smoke was coming out of one window at the synagogue, Rouen prosecutor Frederic Teillet told reporters.

The attacker ran towards one police officer, threatening him with a knife. The officer “shot him five times, hitting him four times,” the prosecutor said. The man died at the scene.

The attack was an “anti-Semitic act against a place that is sacred to the Republic”, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told reporters in Rouen, adding he regretted the “unacceptable, despicable” violence against Jewish people in France.

The man was an Algerian whose application for a residency permit in France for health treatment had been rejected by the authorities, Darmanin said.

His appeal against an expulsion order had been rejected and he was wanted by the security forces for deportation, said Darmanin.

He was a “particularly dangerous, particularly violent” person but had no record of radicalisation, the minister added.

Natacha Ben Haim, president of Normandy’s Jewish community said the walls, and a lot of the furniture, were blackened by the fire and smoke. “It’s catastrophic. Yes, I’m upset, I’m very upset,” she told reporters.

The synagogue in Rouen is pictured after a man armed with a knife and a metal bar is suspected of having set fire, May 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Oleg Cetinic)

Darmanin praised the 25-year-old police officer for using his service weapon against the “particularly dangerous, particularly violent” assailant who rushed at him with a knife, declaring: “He was right to do so.”

The minister said the officer would be decorated for his “extremely courageous, extremely professional” behavior.

A police vehicle is parked by an entrance to a synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen, where French police killed an armed man who tried to set fire to the building, May 17, 2024. (Lou Benoist/AFP)

In Stockholm, police press officer Per Fahlström told newspaper Expressen that a police patrol heard loud bangs, suspected to be from a firearm. The area was cordoned off shortly after 2 a.m., and at 6:30 a.m. the police wrote that their investigations indicated there had been a shooting in the area.

Police at the Israeli Embassy were searching for traces of gunfire.

Fahlström did not comment on whether the embassy was the target of the suspected shooting.

A preliminary investigation into a serious weapons crime was launched.

Swedish police later detained a 14-year-old boy in connection to the shooting and made known that the Israeli embassy was the target.

Police found an unsecured weapon at the crime scene. The case was being handled by the Swedish Security Service, which suggests that the police suspect terrorism.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry noted the incident was being probed by Swedish authorities and there were no further details available.

‘We had this fear inside of us’

In Rouen, the synagogue’s rabbi, Chmouel Lubecki, said his wife was there at the time of the attack.

“We had a great fright,” he said. His wife “heard gunshots and screams… and then she saw smoke coming from the synagogue, so she immediately went down, she helped the firefighters get in the synagogue.”

“We expected [attacks], unfortunately,” he said, because of a rise in antisemitism. “We had this fear inside of us, but when it actually happens, it’s still shocking.”

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (2nd-R) is welcomed by Rabbi Chmouel Lubecki as he arrives at the synagogue in the Normandy city of Rouen on May 17, 2024. (Lou Benoist/AFP)

Before the fire damage was reported, Darmanin wrote on X, “National police in Rouen neutralized early this morning an armed individual who clearly wanted to set fire to the city’s synagogue.”

“It is not only the Jewish community that is affected. It is the entire city of Rouen that is bruised and in shock,” Mayer-Rossignol wrote on X.

There have been increased tensions all over Europe due to the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, with mass protests against the Jewish state and a massive rise in antisemitic incidents.

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said this month that the sharp spike in antisemitic acts in France that followed the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel has continued into this year.

The main French Jewish umbrella group described the synagogue blaze as “a scandalous message” and “a way of saying that Jews don’t belong in French society.” This week, a Paris memorial honoring people who distinguished themselves by helping to rescue Jews in France during the country’s Nazi occupation in World War II was also attacked, defaced with painted blood-red hands.

A view of the synagogue in Rouen that a man is suspected of having set on fire, May 17, 2024. (AP Photo)

“It’s unbearable. It’s more and more serious every day. After the antisemitic graffiti we saw in the past few days, antisemitic slogans, antisemitic insults, we now have attempts at setting synagogues on fire,” said Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France.

“Everyone is wondering whether they can live a peaceful life in France as a Jew,” he added, speaking in an Associated Press interview. “There’s a climate of fear because it feels like, anywhere in our country and at any time, an antisemitic attack can take place. It aims at intimidating French Jews and we won’t accept this intimidation. We refuse it, and we will continue to fight against this unbridled antisemitism.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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