France: Strasbourg attack suspect killed in shoot-out with police

Cherif Chekatt, on the run for 48 hours after deadly Christmas market attack, shot dead in brief gun battle with police.

    After a two-day manhunt, authorities in France say police have found and killed the suspected gunman who shot three people dead at a Christmas market in Strasbourg.

    More than 700 French security forces in the northeastern French city had been hunting for 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt since the Tuesday evening attack, which left 13 people wounded, including five in a critical condition.

    Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Thursday said three police officers tried to question Chekatt after spotting him "wandering" through the streets in Strasbourg's Neudorf area, where he grew up, but he opened fire.

    "They immediately returned fire and neutralised the assailant," Castaner said.

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    The 29-year-old was on a security watch list and had a long criminal record for non-terrorism offences. French prosecutors had opened a "terror" investigation into Tuesday's shooting, while police distributed a photo of Chekatt with the warning: "Individual dangerous, above all, do not intervene."

    "Chekatt spread panic in central Strasbourg on Tuesday evening as he ran through the streets shooting some people with a handgun and slashing others with a knife," Al Jazeera's Bernard Smith, reporting from the French city, said.

    "His time on the run ended in his hometown just three kilometres from where he committed his last and most violent crime of a life spent as a criminal," he added.

    Hours after Chekatt's death was confirmed, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group claimed him as one of its "soldiers".

    The perpetrator of "the attack in the city of Strasbourg ... is one of the soldiers of the Islamic State and carried out the operation in response to calls to target nationals of the coalition" against ISIL, the group said via its Amaq wing in a message posted on Twitter, in a reference to allied countries which are carrying out attacks against it in Syria and Iraq.

    Strasbourg residents light candles in tribute to the victims of the deadly shooting [Christian Hartmann/Reuters]

    Massive manhunt

    The usually busy streets of Strasbourg were eerily empty on Thursday, with a heavy police and military presence. The Christmas market was closed on Thursday.

    Strasbourg shooting - At least three dead, gunman at large (01:39)

    Some lit candles and brought flowers to a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack.

    "You can feel a very heavy atmosphere due [to] all these events," said resident Lucille Romance. "People are in a state of shock and are avoiding getting out of their house."

    The dead in Tuesday's shooting included a Thai tourist, 45-year-old Anupong Suebsamarn, according to Thailand's foreign ministry. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said an Italian among the wounded was in a critical condition.

    French President Emmanuel Macron expressed "the solidarity of the whole country" towards the victims.

    "It is not only France that has been hit ... but a great European city as well," he added, referring to Strasbourg, the seat of the European Parliament, which lies on the border with Germany.

    Strasbourg's location in the heart of Western Europe means that Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg can be easily reached by car or train, making the search for Chekatt more complicated.

    Swiss police had reinforced border checks, while German authorities also widely published the photo of the suspect, which showed him with dark hair, a short beard and a mark on his forehead.

    French authorities said the Strasbourg-born suspect had run-ins with police starting at age 10 and his first conviction was at age 13.

    Chekatt was convicted 27 times, mostly in France but also in Switzerland and Germany, for crimes including armed robbery.

    'Yellow vest' protests

    France had raised its three-stage threat index to the highest level and deployed 1,800 additional soldiers across the country to help patrol streets and secure crowded events in a bid to try and prevent or discourage further attacks.

    As police searched for Chekatt, the government called on the "yellow vest" protesters who have demonstrated across France since last month not to take to the streets again this weekend.

    Members of the movement, known for their fluorescent high-visibility jackets, have planned a fifth round of demonstrations on Saturday to demand tax relief and economic reforms.

    Government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux called on the anti-government protesters to be "reasonable" after nearly four weeks of often violent demonstrations that have led the government to offer a range of financial relief to low earners.

    "Our security forces have been deployed extensively these past few weeks," Griveaux told CNews television.

    "It would be better if everyone could go about their business calmly on Saturday, before the year-end celebrations with their families, instead of demonstrating and putting our security forces to work once again," he added.

    The protests began on November 17 over fuel tax increases, but snowballed into a revolt over living standards as well as Macron's perceived indifference to the problems of ordinary citizens.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies