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France

France dismisses Islamic State claim for Strasbourg Christmas bloodshed

  • Strasbourg Christmas market reopens after gunman killed three people on Tuesday night
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 11:21pm

France’s interior minister on Friday dismissed a claim by Islamic State that it was responsible for a shooting spree at a Christmas market in Strasbourg after the gunman was shot dead by police, ending a 48-hour manhunt.

The city reopened the market on Friday, with officials praising the massive public help and quick police reaction that led to the death of suspected shooter Cherif Chekatt late on Thursday.

He was tracked down at around 9.00pm local time when a police patrol spotted him on a street in a district where he was last seen after Tuesday night’s attack.

Around 800 people had called in tips to a hotline after the authorities released his name and photo Wednesday night, including two which France’s anti-terror prosecutor Remy Heitz called “decisive” in finding Chekatt.

The information allowed police to home in on an area in the Neudorf neighbourhood, where he tried to escape into a building after being spotted by a patrol.

Unable to get in the door, he turned and shot at the three officers with a handgun when they tried to approach, two of whom returned fire and killed him, Heitz said at a press conference in Strasbourg.

Two more people were detained for questioning overnight, bringing to seven the number in custody, including Chekatt’s parents and two brothers, Heitz said.

Police are now focusing their investigation on whether Chekatt had any help in carrying out his attack or while on the run, he added.

The lights on the market’s towering Christmas tree were illuminated Friday for the first time since the attack, as Interior Minister Christophe Castaner visited with stall owners and the hundreds of security forces members on site.

Onlookers applaud as French police shoot dead Strasbourg Christmas market gunman Cherif Chekatt

He dismissed as “completely opportunistic” a Twitter post by the IS propaganda wing which claimed Chekatt, a career criminal with 27 convictions in four countries, was one of its “soldiers”.

“We’re dealing with a man who was consumed by evil,” Castaner said.

Questions remain over how Chekatt was able to evade the tight security perimeter set up around the Strasbourg Christmas market which has long been a prime target for jihadist groups.

Around 500 police, security agents and soldiers control access at checkpoints on the bridges leading to the river island, a UN World Heritage Site, that houses the market.

The goal is to “create a bubble with searches at the entry points”, Mayor Roland Ries said after the attack, while regional government representative Jean-Luc Marx said he had not determined “any flaws in the security measures”.

Many residents, however, were not convinced after Chekatt managed to slip through the controls with a handgun and a knife which he used to kill three people and injure 13.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Emeline, 38, who works in the city centre. “You wear a heavy coat, put something in the bottom of your bag. You can bring in what you want.”

France has been on high alert since the start of a wave of jihadist attacks in 2015, which prompted a threefold surge in the security budget for the market, to one million euros.

Chekatt, a 29-year-old Strasbourg native who lived in a rundown apartment block a short drive from the city centre, was flagged by French security forces in 2015 as a possible Islamic extremist.

But Defence Minister Florence Parly rejected criticism that Chekatt’s presence on the country’s so-called “S file” of extremists should have prompted a more proactive reaction from the authorities.

“You can’t … arrest someone just because you think he might do something,” Parly told Radio Classique on Friday.

Strasbourg’s deputy mayor Alain Fontanel admitted that despite patrols, plain clothes police, profilers and video surveillance, “the risks can be reduced, but not eliminated”.

Gunman on the run after killing 3, wounding 12 at Christmas market in Strasbourg, France

“We can’t pat down and search everyone, only carry out random checks,” he said, adding that huge queues at checkpoints would only create a new potential target for terrorists.

“Someone who wants to get in an area this big with a weapon can do it,” he said.

Such reasoning was little comfort to the residents and tourists who flock to the Strasbourg market.

“We thought this would happen only in Nice or at the Bataclan, but here it is at home,” said Sylvain, who works at another market in the city centre.

He was referring to a truck attack which killed scores of people at Bastille Day festivities in the French Riviera city of Nice in 2016, and the massacre in the capital’s Bataclan concert hall in November 2015.

“I’m not going to forget this any time soon. It’s too painful. I’m not even sure I’m able to cry,” he said.