French Police Seek Strasbourg Market Gunman, Dead or Alive

December 13, 2018 Updated: December 13, 2018

STRASBOURG, France—Armed French police searched Strasbourg’s Neudorf neighborhood on Dec. 13 in pursuit of the gunman who killed three people in an attack on a Christmas market.

Elite officers from the RAID police unit fanned out along one street, some with weapons trained on houses in front of them. Other officers extended a security perimeter in the neighborhood.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told the Senate that police were acting on a lead and “eliminating any doubts.” There was no immediate indication if they had located the suspected shooter.

The ID of Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt
The ID of Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, the man accused of a gun attack on a Christmas market in Strasbourg, France. (French Police Nationale/via Reuters)

The death toll from the Dec. 11 attack rose to three, as police combed the city in the east of France for a second day and manned checkpoints along the German border.

Police issued a wanted poster for Cherif Chekatt, the main suspect in the attack, who is on a watchlist as a potential security threat. Authorities say the 29-year-old was known to have developed radical religious views while in jail.

Strasbourg’s mayor said the attack was “indisputably an act of terrorism” and, with the gunman on the run, France has raised its security threat to the highest level.

More than 700 police are taking part in the manhunt. French and German police manned controls on either side of the Europe Bridge, which spans the frontier running along the Rhine river.

Asked if French police were instructed to catch Chekatt dead or alive, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews, “It doesn’t matter. The best thing would be to find him as quickly as possible.”

It took police four months to track down Salah Abdesalam, the prime surviving suspect from the November 2015 militant assault on Paris, in an apartment in Brussels. That attack left 130 people dead, along with seven gunmen and bombers.

Religious Symbolism

The Christmas market, a hugely popular attraction in historic Strasbourg, remained closed Dec. 13.

Witnesses told investigators that the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) as he opened fire on the market, a target that Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz suggested may have been chosen for its religious symbolism.

Chekatt’s police file photo shows a bearded man of North African descent, with a “prayer bruise” on his forehead. He has 27 criminal convictions for theft and violence, and has spent time in French, German, and Swiss jails.

The message "I am Strasbourg" is seen among flowers and candles
The message “I am Strasbourg” is seen among flowers and candles at the Place Kleber in tribute to the victims of the deadly shooting in Strasbourg, France, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

Neighbors on the housing estate where Chekatt family’s lived described the suspect as a typical young man, who dressed in jogging pants and trainers rather than traditional Islamic robes.

“He was a little gangster, but I didn’t see any signs of him being radicalized,” said a leader of a community group standing outside Chekkat’s apartment building, who asked not to be identified.

The attack took place at a challenging time for President Emmanuel Macron, who on Dec. 10 announced tax concessions to quell a month-long public revolt over living costs that spurred the worst unrest in central Paris since student riots in 1968.

Griveaux said a decision had yet to be taken about whether to ban another planned “yellow vest” protest in Paris. The last three consecutive Saturdays in the capital have seen cars torched, shops looted and the Arc de Triomphe defaced in the rioting.

“We’re simply saying at this stage that, given the events that are unfolding after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg, it would be preferable if everyone could go about a Saturday before the festive holidays in a quiet way,” Griveaux said.

By John Irish and Gilbert Reilhac