By Foo Yun Chee and Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - A gunman on a security watchlist killed at least two people and wounded at least 11 others near the picturesque Christmas market in the historic French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday evening before fleeing.
With France still on high alert after a wave of attacks commissioned or inspired by Islamic State militants since early 2015, the counter-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.
Amid fast-moving, confusing scenes it was not clear if the suspect, identified by police as Strasbourg-born Chekatt Cherif, 29, had been cornered by commandos or had slipped the dragnet.
Medics at the scene and police sources told journalists four people had been killed. But in a statement at 2215 GMT, the local prefecture was still saying two people had died.
The attack began at about 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) as stallholders prepared to close down and the city's restaurants filled up. Bystanders were swiftly ushered into nearby shops.
"There was confusion initially but they locked the front doors pretty soon after the gunshots," said U.S. citizen Elizabeth Osterwisch, who was sheltering on the top floor of the Galeries Lafayette department store. "They moved us several times, eventually settling on the place with the most protection."
European Parliament lawmaker Emmanuel Maurel said he had heard the shots.
"From my hotel window I saw passers-by dragging someone who was injured and onlookers panicking," he tweeted. "Soldiers and police have cordoned off the area. We're being told to stay in the hotel."
A source close to the operation said the suspect had been cornered and shots had been fired. But an hour or so later, a police source said he was still on the run.
The European Parliament, which is sitting in Strasbourg this week, was put into lockdown.
Strasbourg lies on the west bank of the Rhine river. On the opposite side, German police tightened border controls, officials said.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said the gunman was known to security services, and the local prefecture said he was on an intelligence services watchlist.
A Reuters reporter was among 30 to 40 people being held in the basement of a supermarket for their own safety, waiting for police to clear the area. Lights were switched off and bottles of water handed out.
Security was tight this year for the Christmas market, popular with visitors to the city's old quarter, with its Gothic cathedral and half-timbered houses.
Unauthorised vehicles were excluded from surrounding streets during opening hours and checkpoints were set up on bridges and access points to search pedestrians' bags.
The Paris prosecutor said the motive for the attack was not known. No one immediately claimed responsibility but the U.S.-based Site intelligence group, which monitors jihadist websites, said Islamic State supporters were celebrating.
Sources familiar with the police operation said the suspect's home had been raided earlier in the day in connection with a robbery during the summer, but he was not found there.
President Emmanuel Macron was being updated on events, an Elysee Palace official said. Castaner was on his way to Strasbourg.
Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, the EU executive, tweeted: "My thoughts are with the victims of the Strasbourg shooting, which I condemn with the utmost firmness. Strasbourg is an excellent symbol of peace and European Democracy. Values that we will always defend."
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was "shocked and saddened". City authorities said the market and all cultural attractions would be closed on Wednesday.
Some 26,000 individuals suspected of posing a security risk to France are on the "S File" watchlist, of whom about 10,000 are believed to have been radicalised, sometimes in fundamentalist Salafist Muslim mosques, online or abroad.
European security agencies have feared for some time that Islamist militants who left Europe to fight for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq would return after the jihadist group's defeat, with the skills and motivation to carry out attacks at home.
Secular France has been grappling with how to respond to both homegrown jihadists and foreign militants following attacks in Paris, Nice, Marseille and beyond since 2015.
In 2016, a truck ploughed into a Bastille Day crowd in Nice, killing more than 80 people, while in November 2015, coordinated Islamist militant attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and other sites in Paris claimed about 130 lives. There have also been attacks in Paris on a policeman on the Champs-Elysees avenue, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher store.
Almost exactly two years ago, a Tunisian Islamist rammed a hijacked truck into a Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 11 people as well as the driver.
(Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac in Strasbourg and Christian Hartmann, Emmanuel Jarry, Michel Rose and Inti Landauro in Paris and Kevin Liffey in London; writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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Updated Date: Dec 12, 2018 07:06:10 IST