STRASBOURG, France: A gunman killed at least three people and injured another 13 at the famed Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg on Tuesday (Dec 11) before fleeing the scene, security officials said.
Police launched a manhunt after the killer opened fire at around 8pm local time (3am Singapore time Wednesday) on one of the city's busiest streets, sending crowds of evening shoppers fleeing for safety.
Mayor Roland Ries earlier said that four people had been killed and three or four of the injured were in critical condition.
Soldiers patrolling the area as part of regular anti-terror operations exchanged fire with the suspect and injured him, but could not stop him escaping, police sources said.
Police identified the suspect as Strasbourg-born Cherif Chekatt, 29, who was known to the intelligence services as a potential security risk.
Several residents of the city have been detained in recent years for trying to reach extremist groups in Syria, or arrested upon their return.
"The attacker, who was on the S list (of extremists watched by police), is actively being hunted by security forces," local officials said in a statement.
It said some "350 policemen and gendarmes are still deployed on the ground," backed up by helicopters, elite units and soldiers deployed as part of a long-term nationwide anti-terrorism operation.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said France had raised its security alert level to "emergency attack" with "the implementation of reinforced border controls and tightened controls on all Christmas markets in France to avoid the risk of a copycat" attack.
France's security forces, already on high alert after a series of terror attacks since 2015, are particularly stretched at the moment due to anti-government protests that have swept the country.
"I heard shooting and then there was pandemonium," one witness, who gave his name as Fatih, told AFP. "People were running everywhere."
He said he had seen three people injured on the ground only a few metres from the giant Christmas tree in the centre of the eastern city.
Shortly after the shooting, lines of police vehicles and ambulances streamed into the market area, under festive lights declaring the city the "capital of Christmas".
"We heard several shots, three perhaps, and we saw people running," one witness told AFP afterwards, asking not to be named.
"One of them fell down, I don't know whether it was because she was tripped up or if she was hit," the witness said.
An AFP reporter saw paramedics load one victim into the back of an ambulance on a stretcher.
Several areas neighbouring the Christmas market were sealed off on Tuesday night and residents were being told to stay indoors.
Many people took refuge in local restaurants and bars, which pulled down their shutters.
"We let everyone inside, down into the wine cellar. They're locked in there," local restaurant owner Mouad, 33, told AFP.
A police source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that security forces had opened fire in an area of the city where the suspect was thought to be hiding.
The source did not give the address and it was unclear if the shooter had been located.
Specialised anti-terror prosecutors have opened an investigation into the incident in Strasbourg, which lies on the border of Germany.
The Strasbourg-based European Parliament was also on lockdown after reports of the shooting emerged, with MEPs, staff and journalists unable to leave the building, an AFP reporter said.
The parliament was in plenary session, with hundreds of MEPs and officials having made the monthly visit to Strasbourg from Brussels.
In a parliament bar usually reserved for MEPs, EU commissioners, powerful legislators and staffers huddled in small groups waiting for developments.
"Our first thought was for colleagues who had already made it to the centre of town, who are safe," Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt told AFP. "Now we just wait."
The Christmas market in Strasbourg and the city's illuminations are an annual tourist attraction that draw hundreds of thousands of people.
Security has been stepped up in recent years after a series of attacks in France by extremist gunmen and the Strasbourg market was long considered a possible target.
In 2016, a 23-year-old Tunisian killed 12 and injured 48 others when he ploughed a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin in an attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
Special anti-terror army units have been deployed in Strasbourg and soldiers and armed police are regularly seen patrolling among the 300 wooden Christmas market chalets.
The shooting on Tuesday comes at a time when French security fores are stretched after more than three weeks of anti-government demonstrations.
Nearly 90,000 police were deployed on Saturday for the fourth round of protests by so-called "yellow vests" which led to violence in many cities.
Three years after groups of militants gunned down and blew up 130 people in Paris on November 13, 2015, French counter-terror officials say their focus has shifted.
Rather than coordinated attacks, their main concern is attacks by "lone wolves" - self-radicalised individuals acting without links to terror groups such as Islamic State.
Most recently a 20-year-old Chechnya-born man went on a knife rampage in central Paris last May, killing one man and injuring four other people on a Saturday night.
A total of 246 people have been killed in terror attacks in France since 2015, according to an AFP toll.