The attack in the heart of Strasbourg as the annual Christmas market was closing on Tuesday night left two dead, 13 injured and crowds of traumatised witnesses.
The suspect, a 29-year-old Strasbourg native identified as Cherif Chekatt, opened fire with a handgun and stabbed passers-by during his terrorist rampage, France’s anti-terror prosecutor Remy Heitz said Wednesday.
[#AppelàTémoins] La #Police judiciaire recherche l'individu suspecté d'être le tireur du marché de Noël de #Strasbourg. #AidezNous⚠ Attention, individu dangereux, n’intervenez pas vous-même. 📞 Contactez le 197 - https://t.co/K2nJHREiwZ pic.twitter.com/zHSNRDkGXCPolice nationale (@PoliceNationale) December 12, 2018
Chekatt, who was on a watchlist for suspected religious extremists, had already been sentenced 27 times in France, Germany and Switzerland for crimes including violence and robbery.
His mother and father, as well as two brothers, were detained for questioning on Wednesday.
Chekatt was flagged by French security forces in 2015 as a possible extremist while in prison, after he “called for practising a radical form of religion,” deputy interior minister Laurent Nunez told France Inter radio Wednesday.
He lived in a rundown housing estate a short drive from the Christmas market, which draws some two million people each year to its wooden chalets selling festive decorations, mulled wine and food.
“His family has lived around here for a while, but he lived on his own nearby,” Zach, a 22-year-old in the Poteries area of Strasbourg, said. “He was discreet, not a thug.”
Around 720 police officers and other security forces are searching for him, Castaner said, and the public is being urged to alert police of any tips on his whereabouts.
🇫🇷 Je m’éteindrai plus tôt ce soir, à minuit, en hommage aux victimes de l’attaque de #Strasbourg.🇬🇧 I will turn off my lights earlier tonight, at midnight, to honour the victims of yesterday’s attack in Strasbourg. https://t.co/l3s229Nfx9La tour Eiffel (@LaTourEiffel) 12 December 2018
Police had attempted to arrest Cherif on Tuesday morning as part of an investigation into a robbery gone bad and an attempted murder, Nunez said.
He was not at home, but police found a grenade, four knives and a loaded .22 calibre pistol.
Strasbourg mayor Roland Ries said most of the victims were men, including one Thai tourist who was among the dead.
Anupong Suebsamarn had just arrived from Thailand with his wife Naina and another couple - who were all pictured together on a flight to France shortly before the tragedy, Thai media reported.
The group had arrived in the country the day before Tuesday’s shooting and were due to travel to Paris on Thursday, it was reported.
In Rome, the foreign ministry said one of the injured was an Italian journalist covering the European parliament, but did not confirm media reports that he was in a serious condition.
According to a tweet by Poland’s embassy in Paris, a Polish citizen was also among the injured.