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Christmas market attack: France declares Strasbourg shooting an act of terrorism

French Interior Minister Christophe Casataner met Dec. 12 with security officials and medical teams in Strasbourg, France, the day after a deadly shooting. (Video: Christophe Castaner via Storyful)

STRASBOURG, France — White roses and candles formed a makeshift memorial for victims of an attack on France’s largest Christmas market Tuesday night.

The suspect in the shooting was identified by French media as 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, who has a long criminal record, and the Paris prosecutor announced Wednesday that the attack was an act of terrorism.

A manhunt was still underway for the attacker, who killed at least two people and wounded 14 others, and was reportedly wounded himself, before fleeing the scene in this eastern French city.

“Once again, terrorism has struck our territory, in Strasbourg,” said Paris Prosecutor Rémy Heitz, whose office leads terrorism investigations across the country.

Heitz corrected earlier statements that three people were killed. The prosecutor specified that one of the three previously reported as dead was, in fact, “brain dead” but not deceased. Of those injured, eight were in critical condition, he said.

He noted that the suspect had 27 criminal convictions in France, Germany and Switzerland.

Earlier Wednesday, a top Interior Ministry official, Laurent Nunez, said that police went to the suspect’s home on the morning of the attack to arrest him in connection with an attempted murder but that he was not there. Nunez said the suspect became radicalized during one of his many stints in prison and was known to security services.

Local police advised residents of Strasbourg, France to avoid the area near a large Christmas market Dec. 11, after a shooting killed at least four people. (Video: AP)

On Tuesday night, the attacker sprayed gunfire into the Strasbourg market. He exchanged fire with police and soldiers protecting the market, wounding one soldier. The attacker was shot in the hand.

He commandeered a taxi and fled the scene. The taxi driver later went to police and described the man as wounded and armed with a handgun and knife, according to Heitz. The driver also said the gunman mentioned that police had searched his house that morning and found a hand grenade, which helped authorities identify the suspect.

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Four people with connections to Chekatt have been detained for questioning, according to Heitz.

“Unfortunately, we are facing a threat which has been here for a long time and is permanent,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, the director of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. “For us, this is the new normal, and something that will be with us for years to come.”

Some 350 members of security forces are on the scene in Strasbourg, a city on the German border that is also one of the homes of the European Parliament, which was in session at the time of the shooting.

A lockdown in the city has been lifted, and schools opened Wednesday, but the country remains on high alert, with border controls tightened and extra security at the other Christmas markets around France.

The reactions in France have centered largely on how the shooting might affect the ongoing “yellow vest” protest, a series of demonstrations over dwindling purchasing power that have brought political life to a standstill and undermined the authority of French President Emmanuel Macron.

On Wednesday, some yellow vest protesters went so far as to circulate conspiracy theories accusing the government of plotting the attack to undermine public support for their cause.

Meanwhile, some government ministers, such as Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, did, in fact, point to Strasbourg as a reason for the yellow vests to disperse altogether.

In Strasbourg, however, political machinations were not top of mind.

On the postcard-ready Rue des Orfevres, where some of the shootings took place, patisseries and chocolatiers at the bottom of ancient wooden houses were virtually empty, as security crackdowns limited access to the city. Stalls at the Christmas market selling traditional mulled wine and holiday confections were boarded up.

Yves Jean, 62, who has lived in Strasbourg his entire life and owns a souvenir shop nearby, came to pay his respects to the victims. One of them was his colleague’s cousin, Jean said.

“It’s an absolute horror,” he said. He burst into tears as he spoke. “I can’t understand. Especially in France — we are still so tolerant. We live so well.”

Europe has a centuries-old tradition of Christmas markets in the weeks ahead of the holiday. In recent years, the markets have become targets for terrorism because they draw crowds and have ties to religion.

In 2000, German and French authorities foiled a plan by al-Qaeda-linked operatives to target the Strasbourg Cathedral and Christmas market on New Year’s Eve. Fourteen people were later convicted of participating in the terrorist plot.

In 2016, 12 people were killed at a Berlin market when a truck plowed through a crowd. That year, several arrests were made in November in Strasbourg, and city authorities threatened to cancel the market if it received serious threats.

On Wednesday morning in Washington, President Trump responded to the Strasbourg attack in the context of an ongoing debate over funding for his proposed border wall with Mexico.

“Another very bad terror attack in France,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are going to strengthen our borders even more.”

Chekatt, the suspect, is a French citizen, authorities confirmed.

Luisa Beck in Berlin and Paul Schemm in Addis Ababa, Ethi­o­pia, contributed to this report.

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