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France on edge as suspect in deadly market attack remains free

STRASBOURG, France — Hundreds of police and soldiers hunted Wednesday for a suspected extremist who sprayed gunfire near one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets, killing three and wounding at least 13 in the eastern city of Strasbourg and putting the whole country on edge anew.

Police union officials identified the suspected assailant as Cherif Chekatt, a 29-year-old with a thick police record for crimes including armed robbery. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss details of the large and ongoing investigation.

Senior Interior Ministry official Laurent Nunez said the man had been radicalized in prison and had been monitored by French intelligence services since his release from jail in late 2015, because of his suspected religious extremism.

Nunez, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, said on France-Inter radio that police sought to arrest the man on Tuesday morning, hours before the shooting, in relation to an attempted murder. He was not at home but five other people were detained, authorities said.

The government raised the security alert level and sent police reinforcements to Strasbourg, where more than 350 security forces were involved in the massive manhunt. Police officials said he was wounded in a gunfight with soldiers after the Tuesday night attack but escaped, and a top official said he might have fled to neighboring Germany.

A terrorism investigation was opened, but the motive of the attack is unclear. Nunez said eight of the injured are in serious condition, and the city mayor said some had head wounds.

Witnesses described shots and screams after the gunman opened fire around the Christmas market Tuesday evening in a city that’s home to the European Parliament and considers itself a capital of Europe — and promotes itself as the “capital of Christmas.” For several hours swaths of the city were under lockdown.

The suspected attacker also had a criminal record in Germany. He was convicted of robbery in Germany in 2016 and sentenced to two years and three months in prison for breaking into a dental practice and a pharmacy in two German towns.

The 2016 verdict from a district court in the southern German city of Singen, obtained by The Associated Press, also said he was sentenced to prison in France in 2008 and in Basel, Switzerland in 2013 for various robberies. News agency dpa reported that he was deported to France in 2017.

According to that verdict, the suspected attacker grew up with six siblings in Strasbourg, worked for local authorities after leaving school and had been unemployed since 2011. He said that he had been traveling a lot and had already spent four years of his life in prison. The German robberies took place in Mainz, near Frankfurt, in 2012 and in Engen, near the Swiss border, in 2016.

The attack is a new blow to France, which saw a wave of Islamic extremist killings in 2015 and 2016. It came amid a month of protests against President Emmanuel Macron that have blocked roads around the country, led to rioting in the capital and put heavy strain on police.

While authorities urged people in the area to stay inside after Tuesday’s attack, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries told BFM television Wednesday that “life must go on” so that the city doesn’t cede to a “terrorist who is trying to disrupt our way of life.”

The assailant got inside a security zone around the venue and opened fire from there, Mayor Roland Ries said on BFM television.

Police were out in force in Strasbourg, a city about 500 kilometers (310 miles) east of Paris on France’s border with Germany, on Wednesday morning. The Christmas market, a holiday tradition there, was closed. The market was the target of an al-Qaida-linked plot at the turn of the millennium.

Many of Europe’s deadliest terror attacks in recent years have taken place in France. In response to Tuesday’s shooting, the government decided to take the country’s attack risk up a level on the official threat index and to send security reinforcements to Strasbourg, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said in Strasbourg.

Some 350 officers and two helicopters were searching for the assailant after Tuesday’s drama, which involved shooting in multiple neighborhoods of Strasbourg, authorities said. The assailant confronted law enforcement officers twice, exchanging fire, while he “sowed terror,” Castaner said.

The shooter was shot and wounded by soldiers guarding the Christmas market, according to Stephane Morisse of police union FGP Police.

“I heard two or three shots at around 7:55 p.m., then I heard screams. I got close to the window. I saw people running. After that I closed the shutters. Then I heard more shots, closer this time,” said Yoann Bazard, 27, who lives in central Strasbourg.

“I thought maybe it’s firecrackers,” he said, speaking by phone. “And then, as it got close, it was really shocking. There were a lot of screams. … There were police or soldiers shouting ‘Get inside!’ and ‘Put your hands on your head.’”

Another witness, Peter Fritz, told the BBC one of the three people killed was a Thai tourist who was shot in the head and didn’t respond to lengthy attempts to revive him.

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