France dismisses Daesh claim for Strasbourg Christmas bloodshed

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French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, center, gives a press conference in Strasbourg, eastern France, on Friday as the Christmas market reopens after the author of the attack was killed on Thursday. — AFP

STRASBOURG, France — France’s interior minister on Friday dismissed a claim by Daesh (the so-called IS) that a gunman who killed four people at a Christmas market in Strasbourg was one of its “soldiers”, as investigators sought to understand his motives.

Attending the reopening of the Christmas market, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said a Twitter post by the Daesh propaganda wing saying Cherif Chekatt was one of its “soldiers” was “completely opportunistic”.

“We’re dealing with a man who was consumed by evil,” he told reporters after touring the famed market.

President Emmanuel Macron was to visit later in the day after attending a European Union summit in Brussels, his office said.

Officials praised the massive public help and quick police reaction that led to the death of 29-year-old Chekatt, a career criminal with 27 convictions in four countries, late on Thursday.

He was tracked down at around 9:00 p.m. (2000 GMT) when a police patrol spotted him on a street in the Neudorf district where he was last seen after his gun and knife attack on Tuesday night.

Around 800 people called in tips to a hotline after the authorities released his name and photo on Wednesday night.

Two calls in particular were “decisive” in finding Chekatt, France’s anti-terror prosecutor Remy Heitz said.

The information allowed police to cordon off an area while a helicopter equipped with a heat-seeking camera overflew the gardens.

Spotted by a police patrol, Chekatt tried to escape by entering a building.

Unable to get in the door, he turned and shot at the three officers with a handgun when they tried to approach.

Two police officers returned fire and killed him, Heitz told a press conference in Strasbourg.

Four people were killed and 12 injured, including one who has been declared brain-dead and another still in critical condition, according to the latest toll.

Two more people were detained for questioning overnight, bringing to seven the number in custody, including Chekatt’s parents and two brothers, Heitz said.

Another brother, who like Chekatt was on France’s anti-terror watch list for suspected extremists, has been detained in Algeria, sources close to the inquiry said.

Police are now focusing their investigation on whether Chekatt had any help in carrying out his attack or while on the run.

Questions remain over how Chekatt was able to evade the tight security perimeter set up around the Christmas market, which has long been a prime target for militant groups.

Around 500 police, security agents and soldiers control access at checkpoints on the bridges leading to the river island, a UN World Heritage site, that houses the market.

The goal is to “create a bubble with searches at the entry points,” Mayor Roland Ries said after the attack, while regional government representative Jean-Luc Marx said he had not determined “any flaws in the security measures”.

Many residents, however, were not convinced after Chekatt managed to slip through the controls with a handgun and a knife.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Emeline, 38, who works in the city center. “You wear a heavy coat, put something in the bottom of your bag. You can bring in what you want.”

France has been on high alert since the start of a wave of militant attacks in 2015, which prompted a threefold surge in the security budget for the market, to one million euros.

Chekatt, a Strasbourg native who lived in a rundown apartment block a short drive from the city center, was flagged by French security forces in 2015 as a possible extremist.

But Defense Minister Florence Parly rejected criticism that Chekatt’s presence on the extremist watch list should have prompted a more proactive reaction from the authorities.

“You can’t... arrest someone just because you think he might do something,” Parly told Radio Classique on Friday.

Strasbourg’s deputy mayor Alain Fontanel admitted that despite patrols, plainclothes police, profilers and video surveillance, “the risks can be reduced, but not eliminated”.

“We can’t pat down and search everyone, only carry out random checks,” he said, adding that huge lines at checkpoints would only create a new potential target for terrorists.

“Someone who wants to get in an area this big with a weapon can do it,” he said.

Such reasoning was little comfort to the residents and tourists who flock to the Strasbourg market.

“We thought this would happen only in Nice or at the Bataclan, but here it is at home,” said Sylvain, who works at another market in the city center.

He was referring to a truck attack which killed over 80 people at Bastille Day festivities in the French Riviera city of Nice in 2016, and the massacre in the capital’s Bataclan concert hall in November 2015. — AFP


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