French govt urges end to protests after Strasbourg attack

A man wearing a yellow vest waves a French flag in front of burning tyres at a road blockade during a protest against the rise in the price of oil and the cost of living near Montpellier, southern France.
A man wearing a yellow vest waves a French flag in front of burning tyres at a road blockade during a protest against the rise in the price of oil and the cost of living near Montpellier, southern France.
Image: PASCAL GUYOT / AFP

The French government on Thursday urged "yellow vest" protesters not to hold another round of demonstrations this weekend as police hunted for a second day for the fugitive gunman who attacked a Christmas market in the eastern city of Strasbourg.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux called on the anti-government protesters to be "reasonable", citing the strain on security forces after the bloodshed in Strasbourg on Tuesday evening.

Police across several European countries have joined a manhunt for the main suspect, a 29-year-old Strasbourg native, who killed three and injured 13, according to an updated toll from French authorities.

The suspected killer, identified as Cherif Chekatt, is said to have been injured after exchanging fire with soldiers, but managed to escape and has not been seen since.

"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.

So-called "yellow vest" protesters, known for their fluorescent high-visibility jackets, had called for a fifth round of protests this Saturday against President Emmanuel Macron.

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.

A 23-year-old protester was killed after he was hit by a truck on a roundabout in southern France near Avignon late on Thursday, the sixth person to have died during the weeks of protests.

Wide search 

Hundreds of police in France are now hunting for Chekatt, whose picture was published late Wednesday in a bid to track the career criminal who has at least 27 convictions in four European countries.

Police described him as dangerous and urged people not to approach him.

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

In the German state of Baden-Wuertemberg, which borders Strasbourg, around 100 officers are involved in the search, local authorities said.

In 2016, a jihadist responsible for an attack on a Christmas market in Berlin was shot and killed only three days later in Milan in northern Italy after travelling through the Netherlands and France.

The Strasbourg suspect, 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.

Chekatt is "a familiar composite portrait of today's jihadist," Anne Giudicelli, director of the consulting firm Terrorisc, told AFP. "He ticks all the boxes of the profiles seen before."

His parents and two brothers have been detained for questioning.

Prayers for victims

France has been hit by a wave of attacks from gunmen claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State group since 2015, which have claimed the lives of 246 people before Tuesday's attack, according to an AFP toll.

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.

No group has claimed responsibility for the Strasbourg attack, but social media accounts used by Islamic State sympathisers have celebrated the killings.

The city's Christmas market, which draws around two million people each year, remained closed on Thursday.

The illuminations, which previously declared the city "the capital of Christmas", have been switched off, including on a giant 30-metre (100-foot) Christmas tree in the central Kleber Square.

A prayer service is to be held at the city's medieval cathedral later in the day and messages of support for the victims, as well as candles and rose petals, are building up in some streets.

"All united against barbarism," said one message.

Chekatt managed to evade normally stringent security to make his way into the heart of the market armed with a handgun and a knife.

Three people have now died, while a fourth has been declared brain-dead, according to the new toll Thursday.

Another 12 have been injured, four critically, a statement from the local government office said.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-cha sent a letter of condolence to his French counterpart on Thursday that confirmed a Thai tourist was among the dead.

X