French police officers patrol next to Notre-Dame cathedral of Strasbourg following a shooting in the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018. Image Credit: AP

Strasbourg: Security forces searched through eastern France on Wednesday for a man suspected of killing three people in an attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg and who was known to have been religiously radicalised while in jail.

With the gunman on the run, France raised its security threat to the highest alert level, strengthening controls on its border with Germany as elite commandos backed by helicopters hunted for the suspect.

French and German agents checked vehicles and trams crossing the Europa Bridge on the Rhine river, along which the Franco-German frontier runs, police said, backing up traffic in both directions. Hundreds of French troops and police were taking part in the manhunt.

Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who is on an intelligence services watch list as a potential security risk.

“The hunt continues,” Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez said on France Inter radio.

Asked whether the suspect might have left France, he said: “That cannot be ruled out.”

Brief gunfight

The gunman struck at about 1900 GMT on Tuesday, just as the picturesque Christmas market in the historic city was shutting down, He shot dead three people and wounded at least 12 others.

He engaged in two brief gunfights with security forces as he evaded a police dragnet and was thought to have been wounded in the exchanges, Nunez said.

The Paris prosecutor’s anti-terrorism unit has taken up the investigation, suggesting that the authorities are treating the shooting as a possible terrorist attack.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the US-based Site intelligence group, which monitors extremist websites, said Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) supporters were celebrating.

Nunez said the suspect Chekatt had spent time in prison in France and Germany.

“It was during these spells in jail that we detected a radicalisation in his religious practices. But we there were never signs he was preparing an attack,” the deputy minister said.

A spokeswoman for Germany’s BKA criminal police said Chekatt was deported to France in 2017 and was known to French authorities as a radical Islamist.

Border controls

The attack took place at a testing time for President Emmanuel Macron, who is struggling to quell a month-long public revolt over high living costs that has spurred the worst public unrest in central Paris since the 1968 student riots.

The revelation that Chekatt was on a security watch list will raise questions over possible intelligence failures, though some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the ‘S File’ list.

Of these, about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalised, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist mosques, in jail or abroad.

Police had raided the suspect’s home early on Tuesday in connection with a homicide investigation. Five people were detained and under interrogation as part of that investigation.

More than 600 security forces personnel were involved in Wednesday’s manhunt in France, as well as border agents in Germany.

At the Europa Bridge, the main border crossing in the region used by commuters travelling in both directions, armed police inspected vehicles. Police were also checking pedestrians and trains arriving in Germany from Strasbourg.

“We cannot predict how long these measures will stay in place,” a spokeswoman for the German border police Bundespolizei said.

“We don’t know where the attacker is and we want to prevent him from entering Germany.”

French Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told Public Senat television there was no need for the government to declare a state of emergency as new legislation gave police adequate powers to handle the situation.

Secular France has for years grappled with how to respond to both home-grown extremists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond.

In 2016, a truck ploughed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people. In November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives.

There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the offices of satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.

A Christmas market in Berlin was the target of an attack on December 19, 2016, in which 12 people were killed and 56 wounded when man drove a truck into a crowd.