French authorities detained five people as they hunted Wednesday for a suspected extremist who sprayed gunfire at one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets in the eastern city of Strasbourg, killing three and wounding at least 13 and putting the whole country on edge anew.
The government raised the security alert level and sent police reinforcements to Strasbourg, where some 350 security forces are searching for the assailant. 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 escaped to neighboring Germany.
The attacker is a 29-year-old with a police record in France and Germany who had been flagged for extremism, police said. Police detained five people in overnight searches around the city, Laurent Nunez, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, said on France-Inter radio.
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 at 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 attack is a new blow to France, after a wave of Islamic extremist killings in 2015 and 2016, and 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.
One possible reason for the attack: police tried and failed to arrest him earlier Tuesday for an attempted murder, Nunez said. The suspect had been identified as radicalized during past stays in prison, Nunez added. Authorities did not identify him publicly.