AP NEWS

Strasbourg market attack suspect killed in police shootout

December 14, 2018
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Investigating police officers work in a street of Strasbourg, eastern France, Thursday Dec. 13, 2018. A top French official says a man has been killed in a shootout with police in Strasbourg, but he has not been confirmed as the suspected gunman who killed three people near a Christmas market. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — The man authorities believe killed three people during a rampage near a Christmas market in Strasbourg died Thursday in a shootout with police at the end of a two-day manhunt, French authorities said.

The Paris prosecutor’s office, which handles terror cases in France, formally identified the man killed in the eastern French city as 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, a Strasbourg-born man with a long history of convictions for various crimes, including robberies. Chekatt also had been on a watch list of potential extremists.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, speaking earlier from Strasbourg, said police had spotted a man matching the suspect’s description in the city’s Neudorf neighborhood.

“The moment they tried to arrest him, he turned around and opened fire. They replied,” killing the man, Castaner said.

Chekatt was suspected of killing three people and wounding 13 near Strasbourg’s Christmas market on Tuesday night. Castaner said earlier Thursday that three of the injured had been released from hospital and three others were still fighting for their lives.

“Our engagement against terrorism is total,” French President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Brussels for a European Union summit, said in a tweet thanking security forces.

Five people have been arrested in connection with the investigation, including Chekatt’s parents and two of his brothers. The Paris prosecutor’s office said the fifth, who was arrested Thursday, was a member of Chekatt’s “entourage” but not a family member.

Witnesses said the gunman shouted “God is great!” in Arabic and sprayed gunfire from a security zone near the Christmas market on Tuesday. Security forces wounded the man but he managed to escape in a taxi, which dropped him off in the Neudorf neighborhood.

More than 700 officers searched for Chekatt, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews television.

Chekatt was well-known to police but as a common criminal, not a terrorist. He had his first conviction at 13, and had 26 more by the time he died at age 29. He served jail time in France, Germany and Switzerland.

A local police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the man who shot at police Thursday night had been armed with a pistol and a knife.

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said police had acted on a tip from a woman.

Residents described hearing shots on the street where Chekatt faced off with police, prompting new jitters after two days marked by tension in and around Strasbourg, which lies on the border with Germany and is considered as symbol of European unity.

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist activity online, said the Islamic State group’s Amaq news agency was claiming the gunman as a “soldier” of the group, although IS claims of responsibility have often been considered opportunistic.

Chekatt’s motives remain vague. Authorities had put him on a watch list three years ago for suspected radicalism, but said they didn’t detect signs he was ready to act on it — a pattern in several past attacks in France.

France raised its three-stage threat index to the highest level after Tuesday’s attack and deployed 1,800 additional soldiers across the country to help patrol streets and secure crowded events.

Security forces, including the elite Raid squad, spent hours Thursday searching in the Neudorf neighborhood where Chekatt had grown up based on “supposition only” he might have been hiding in a building nearby, a French police official said.

Residents of the Neudorf neighborhood expressed relief after Chekatt was killed.

“Everybody’s quite happy that the killer has been finally shot. I think now, the city and life can keep going on in Strasbourg,” resident Pierre Plasse said.

One of the three who died in Tuesday’s attack was a Thai tourist, 45-year-old Anupong Suebsamarn, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry. An Italian journalist was in critical condition, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said. The Europhonica radio consortium said Antonio Megalizzi, 28, was in Strasbourg to follow the session of the European Parliament.

The leaders of the 28 European Union countries held a moment of silence for the victims at their summit Thursday.

Before Thursday’s shootout, hundreds of people gathered in Strasbourg’s renowned 500-year-old cathedral to mourn and seek comfort.

“Evil does not prevail,” Archbishop Luc Ravel said. “And the message of Christmas has not been contradicted but rather confirmed by Tuesday’s dramatic night: Evil and good are both there, but in the end the good will have last word.”

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Petrequin and Becatoros reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Jean-Francois Badias in Strasbourg, France, Sylvie Corbet, Deborah Gouffran, and Elaine Ganley in Paris, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, Raf Casert and Angela Charlton in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.