A gunman who opened fire near a popular Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg shouted the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is greater,” at the time of the attack and was also carrying a knife, a Paris prosecutor said Wednesday.
The suspect, identified as Cherif C, born February 24, 1989, killed two people and left one on life support with no chance of recovery, said Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz. Police had previously said three people were killed and 13 injured in the attack Tuesday.
The gunman — who remains on the run — has an extensive criminal background that includes 27 convictions in France, Germany, and Switzerland, said Heitz, mainly for acts of robbery and violence.
More than 350 police gendarmes and soldiers supported by air units have been mobilized to find the suspect, who was already known to security services as a possible threat, police said.
The attack prompted France to raise its national security threat level to its highest “emergency terror attack” status, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said at a news conference.
“What happened last night is unquestionably an attack, a form of terrorist attack,” Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries told CNN by phone.
A curfew in the eastern French city, which lies on the border with Germany, was lifted overnight but law enforcement urged everyone to remain vigilant. Border security has been tightened, authorities said.
Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez earlier told Inter radio station that authorities could not confirm that the suspect had “terrorist motivations.”
Nunez added that while authorities had secured the border and set up a perimeter around Strasbourg, they are unsure if the suspect is still in France.
Strasbourg’s famed Christmas Market is one of the oldest in Europe and draws millions of visitors each year. The suspect entered the perimeter of the market by the city’s Corbeau Bridge, and began shooting at passers-by on the Rue des Orfèvres at 8 p.m. local time, when many were in the middle of their Christmas shopping.
Anti-terror police descended on the market and attempted to apprehend the suspect, who exchanged fire with security forces on at least two occasions between 8:20 p.m. and 9 p.m. Strasbourg police confirmed that the gunman was injured in one of the exchanges. He is then believed to have jumped into a taxi and fled the scene.
Eight people were seriously wounded, Strasbourg police said Wednesday, with five others suffering from minor injuries.
Gunman was known to police
The suspected gunman, who was previously identified by CNN affiliate BFM as a 29-year-old male born in Strasbourg, was on a French watch list called a “Fiche S” surveillance file.
The “Fiche S” is a French terror and radicalization watch list that includes thousands of people, some of whom are under active surveillance, meaning they are on law enforcement’s radar.
Castaner told reporters Wednesday that the suspect was known to police authorities in France and Germany for non-terror related offenses.
French gendarmes had attempted to bring him in for questioning Tuesday morning before the attack but found he wasn’t home, a spokesperson for France’s National Police told CNN, without providing further details.
The interior ministry in the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg confirmed Wednesday that the suspect had been convicted of break-ins and serious theft by a court in Singen in 2016 and subsequently spent time in a prison in the city of Freiburg. He was deported to France in 2017.
The German authorities cooperate closely with their French partners, a spokesman for the interior ministry said, adding that it cannot be ruled out that the suspect may have crossed the open border.
The German Federal Criminal Office said the suspect was not known in Germany as a radical Islamist.
Witness: ‘It was a moment of terror’
Simone Ceruti was in the city’s Kleber Square when the shooting started. “There was a lot of panic, people fleeing and seeking for shelter,” said Ceruti, who filmed footage of the police response from a nearby apartment.
“I let a few ladies in the building where I’m staying these days and then they were accompanied by police,” he said. “It was a moment of terror.”
The injured were taken to a Strasbourg hospital.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted early Wednesday in solidarity with the French people. “Solidarity of the whole Nation for Strasbourg, our victims and their families,” he said.
The Christmas market will be closed Wednesday and flags will be at half-staff, Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said on his Twitter account. All shows scheduled to be performed at the city’s cultural institutions will also be canceled on Wednesday, the mayor said.
A moment’s silence will be marked at 11 a.m. local time across the Grand Est region, said regional president Jean Rottner.
The city’s elementary, high schools and colleges will be open on Wednesday, local police said.
All rallies and demonstrations throughout the Strasbourg area were declared “forbidden” until further notice, the Prefecture of the Grand East and Lower Rhine Region said in a statement on Wednesday.
Strasbourg, a picturesque city of about 300,000 in France’s Grand Est region on the border with Germany, has previously been at the center of French counter terrorism operations. The market itself was targeted 18 years ago in a thwarted plot by al Qaeda-linked terrorists.