STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) – Hundreds of police scoured eastern France on Thursday for a fugitive gunman behind a deadly Strasbourg Christmas market attack that left two people dead and six others fighting for their lives.
French police posted December 12, 2018 on their Police Nationale Twitter account, a call for witnesses for Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, the day after a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. French Police Nationale/via Reuters
France has raised its security threat to the highest level and police issued a wanted poster for Cherif Chekatt, the main suspect in the attack who was on an watchlist as a potential security threat.
Authorities say the 29-year-old was known to have developed radical religious views while in jail.
More than 700 police are involved in the second day of the manhunt, scouring Strasbourg, which lies on the west bank of the Rhine river, and the surrounding region. Police have set up checkpoints on the German border and questioning the suspect’s associates.
Asked if police had been instructed to catch Chekatt dead or alive, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews: “It doesn’t matter. The best thing would be to find him as quickly as possible.”
It took police four months to track down Salah Abdesalam, the prime surviving suspect from the November 2015 militant attack on Paris, in an apartment in Brussels.
Witnesses told investigators that the suspect Chekatt cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he opened fire on the Christmas market, a target Paris Prosecutor Remy Heitz suggested may have been chosen for its religious symbolism.
Chekatt’s police file photo shows a bearded man of North African descent, a prayer bruise blemishing the center of his forehead. He has 27 criminal convictions for theft and violence, and has spent time in French, German and Swiss jails.
Neighbors living on the housing estate where Chekatt family’s lived described the suspect as a typical young man who dressed in jogging pants and trainers rather that traditional Islamic robes.
Two people were killed in the attack and a third person was brain-dead but on life support, the prosecutor said. Six other victims were fighting for their lives.
The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who on Monday announced tax concessions to quell a month-long public revolt over living costs that spurred the worst unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.
Griveaux said a decision had yet to be taken on whether to ban another planned “yellow vest” protest in Paris. The last three consecutive Saturdays of riots in the capital that have seen cars torched, shops looted and the Arc de Triomphe defaced.
“We’re simply saying at this stage that, given the events that are unfolding after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg, it would be preferable if everyone could go about a Saturday before the festive holidays in a quiet way,” Griveaux said.
(This corrects spelling of suspect’s surname.)
Reporting by John Irish and Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg, Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Jon Boyle