French police pursue manhunt after Lyon attack

Authorities ask public for help in locating suspect behind blast that wounded 13; prosecutor says investigation focuses on ‘attempted murder in relation with terrorist undertaking’

This May 24, 2019 screen grab taken from the French police website shows an image and description of a suspect wanted in connection with an explosion in Lyon. (French Police via AP)
This May 24, 2019 screen grab taken from the French police website shows an image and description of a suspect wanted in connection with an explosion in Lyon. (French Police via AP)

LYON, France — French police were on Saturday pulling out all the stops to locate a suspect following a blast in the heart of Lyon that wounded 13 people.

“All means have been activated to identify and detain the person who committed this act,” Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz told media in Lyon, the third-biggest French city.

Heitz said an investigation has been opened for “attempted murder in relation with a terrorist undertaking” and “criminal terrorist association.”

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said, however, that it was too soon to say whether the blast could be termed a “terrorist act.”

Heitz said no group has claimed responsibility for the explosion yet. The number of wounded stood at 13 — eight women, a 10-year-old girl and four men — of which 11 needed hospital treatment. None of their injuries were life-threatening.

President Emmanuel Macron initially called the Friday evening explosion an “attack” but later took a more cautious tone with a tweet that condemned “the violence that has struck” the city’s residents.

The blast, which sources said might have used acetone peroxide, occurred two days ahead of hotly contested European Parliament elections and while France remains on edge owing to terrorist attacks which have rocked the country in recent years.

Heitz described video surveillance that showed the suspect heading toward the center of Lyon on a bike Friday afternoon. The man was seen arriving on foot, pushing his bike along the pedestrian-only Victor Hugo Street, then leaving a paper bag in front of a bakery in the historic city center at around 5:30 pm local time.

The suspect immediately returned to his bike and left on the same path. One minute later, the explosion shattered the glass of a refrigerator in the bakery, Heitz said.

Investigators at the scene found screws, metallic balls, batteries, a triggering device that can be used remotely and plastic pieces that may have come from the explosive device.

Soldiers of French anti-terrorist plan ‘Vigipirate Mission,’ secure the access near the site of a suspected bomb attack in central Lyon, Friday May, 24, 2019. (AP/Sebastien Erome)

Police issued an appeal for witnesses Saturday with a photo of the suspect from video surveillance. They described the man as “dangerous.”

An image of the suspect, wearing light-colored shorts and a long-sleeved dark top, was posted. His face was partially covered by a khaki cap and sunglasses.

Sources close to the investigation suspected the explosive was acetone peroxide, or APEX, a volatile compound used in Paris attacks on November 13, 2015.

Emergency workers carry a person injured by a suspected package bomb along a pedestrian street in the heart of Lyon, southeast France, on May 24, 2019. (Philippe Desmazes/AFP)

They added that traces of DNA was recovered from the sack that held the explosive, but warned they did not necessarily belong to the suspect.

Local authorities said security was enhanced in Lyon, including with more police and military patrols.

Lyon and its extensive suburbs are home to 2.3 million people.

‘Too small to kill’

District mayor Denis Broliquier said “the charge was too small to kill,” and an administrative source told AFP it was a “relatively weak explosive charge.”

“There was an explosion and I thought it was a car crash,” said Eva, a 17-year-old student who was about 15 meters (50 feet) from the blast site.

“There were bits of electric wire near me, and batteries and bits of cardboard and plastic. The windows were blown out.”

The attack upended last-minute campaigning ahead of France’s European Parliament vote on Sunday, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe canceling his appearance at his centrist party’s final rally Friday night.

French Mayor of Lyon Gerard Collomb (C) talks to journalists in front a Brioche Doree bakery on May 25, 2019. (JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

“I was working, serving customers, and all of a sudden there was a huge ‘boom,'” said Omar Ghezza, a baker who works nearby.

“We thought it had something to do with renovation work,” he said.

France has been on high alert owing to a wave of deadly jihadist terror attacks since 2015 that have killed more than 250 people.

The latest was in December when five people were killed and 11 wounded during a Christmas market attack in Strasbourg, eastern France. The alleged killer, Cherif Chekatt — killed by police — had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

The last package bomb in France dates back to December 2007, when a blast in front of a Paris law office killed one person and injured another. Police never determined who carried out that attack.

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