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France hunts gunman after three killed at Strasbourg Christmas market

Hundreds of police and anti-terror forces hunted Wednesday for a gunman who shot dead three people and wounded 13 at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, with the suspect known to police and thought to be an religious extremist. 

The attack took place Tuesday around 8 pm (1900 GMT) in the heart of the medieval city in eastern France as the market was closing, sending crowds fleeing for safety. The suspected shooter, a 29-year-old from the south of the city, was on a watchlist of suspected extremists and "is actively being hunted by security forces," local officials said in a statement. The man opened fire in three areas of the Christmas market, which draws hundreds of thousands of people each year to its wooden chalets selling festive decorations, mulled wine and food. Much of the centre of the city and the European parliament were locked down through though night as teams of police and soldiers searched for the gunman who was reportedly armed with an automatic rifle and a knife. The government has raised the security alert level for terrorism to its highest, reinforcing border controls and patrols around all Christmas markets across France. Hundreds of police, two helicopters, officers from elite anti-terror units and soldiers have been were mobilised Wednesday as part of the efforts to find the suspect.  

- 'People running everywhere' -

  The shooting spree comes as French leader Emmanuel Macron faces the biggest crisis of his presidency after three weeks of anti-government demonstrations sparked by fuel tax rises. Security forces were already stretched by the often violent demonstrations during which five people have died and more than 1,400 been injured. The motive for Tuesday night's shooting in Strasbourg "has not yet been established," deputy Interior minister Laurent Nunez told France Inter radio. The gunman is "known for a number of criminal offences (...) but has never been linked to terrorist offences," he said. Police had wanted to arrest him Tuesday morning as part of a investigation into an attempted murder, but he was not at home, a security source told AFP. Strasbourg mayor Roland Ries said most of the victims were men, including one Thai tourist. "Some were shot in the head," Ries told BFM television. No children were hurt. Soldiers patrolling the area as part of regular anti-terror operations after a series of attacks since 2015 exchanged fire with the suspect and wounded him, police sources said. "I heard shooting and then there was pandemonium," one witness, who gave his name as Fatih, told AFP. "People were running everywhere." He said he had seen three people injured and on the ground only a few metres (feet) from the city's giant Christmas tree.  

- France shaken by attacks -

  France has been targeted by a series of attacks by Islamist gunmen since 2015 and the Strasbourg market was long considered a possible target. Strict vehicle restrictions, security checks and patrols by armed police and soldiers have become the norm. In 2016, a 23-year-old Tunisian killed 12 and injured 48 others when he ploughed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group. He was shot dead by Italian police three days later near Milan after travelling through several European countries. In November 2015, groups of jihadists gunned down and blew up 130 people in Paris on November 13 in a coordinated rampage by Islamic State extremists that shook the country and Europe. But French counter-terror officials say their focus has since shifted, with the biggest danger now posed by so-called "lone wolves" -- self-radicalised individuals acting without links to terror groups. Most recently a 20-year-old Chechnya-born man went on a knife rampage in central Paris in May, killing one man and injuring four. A total of 246 people have been killed in terror attacks in France since 2015, according to an AFP toll. DM

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