The man who authorities say killed three people near a Christmas market in Strasbourg died Tuesday in a shootout with police at the end of 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 had also been on a watch list of potential extremists.
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The news came a couple of hours after Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said a man believed to be Chekatt had been gunned down during a police operation in the city’s Neudorf neighbourhood.
Castaner said the suspect opened fire on police Thursday night when officials tried to arrest him.
“The moment they tried to arrest him, he turned around and opened fire. They replied,” Castaner said.
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 was armed with a pistol and a knife.
Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said police acted on a tip from a woman. Local police officer Emmanuel Georg told BFM TV station that three police officers patrolling the neighbourhood tried to intercept a suspect corresponding to Chekatt’s description as he was about to enter a building.
“He opened fire; they responded and managed to shoot him down,” Georg said.
A witness to the shootout said he heard shots and rushed to the window to see what was happening. He closed the shutters when he spotted the cornered suspect across the street.
“I was very afraid for my children. I told them to go away and I went to the side,” Cem Akcakaya told the Associated Press.
After it was over, he said he saw the man motionless on his back on the pavement, his left arm askew.
Chekatt is accused of killing three people and wounding 13 on Tuesday night. Castaner said earlier Thursday that three of the injured had been released from hospital and three others were fighting for their lives.
More than 700 officers were deployed to find Chekatt, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews television. French authorities said Chekatt had 27 criminal convictions, receiving the first at age 13.
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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 in the past.
Security forces, including the elite Raid squad, spent hours searching in the Neudorf neighbourhood on Thursday based on “supposition only” that Chekatt could have been hiding in a building nearby two days after the attack, a French police official said. Chekatt grew up in Neudorf.
Chekatt allegedly shouted “God is great!” in Arabic and sprayed gunfire from a security zone near the Christmas market Tuesday evening. Authorities said he was wounded during an exchange of fire with security forces, and a taxi driver dropped him off in Neudorf after he escaped.
So far, five people have been arrested and remanded in custody 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 at an undisclosed location, was a member of Chekatt’s “entourage” but not a family member.
France has raised its three-stage threat index to the highest level since the attack and deployed 1,800 additional soldiers across the country to help patrol streets and secure crowded events.
Residents of Neudorf expressed relief.
“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.
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The people who died in the attack included a Thai tourist, 45-year-old Anupong Suebsamarn, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry. Five of the wounded were in serious condition, the Prefecture of the Strasbourg region said.
French President Emmanuel Macron was in Brussels on Thursday for a European Union summit. EU leaders held a minute of silence for the latest victims of the mass shooting in France.
Hundreds of people gathered in Strasbourg’s 500-year-old cathedral Thursday evening 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.”
Strasbourg’s usually busy streets were eerily empty Thursday morning, with a heavy police and military presence. Some lit candles and brought flowers to a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack.
“You can feel a very heavy atmosphere due all these events,” said resident Lucille Romance. “People are in a state of shock and are avoiding getting out of their house.”
On Thursday, a police operation was underway in the La Meinau district of the eastern France city with reports of gunfire.
France’s interior minister later confirmed that Chekatt was dead.
The suspected gunman grew up in the city and had a checkered past. The 29-year-old man had racked up dozens of past criminal convictions for theft and fraud and had been in and out of jail.