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Soldiers banned from wearing uniforms off base

France has banned soldiers from wearing uniforms outside military bases after three paratroopers were killed in attacks this week. An unidentified gunman on a motorbike killed two soldiers in Montauban Thursday and another in Toulouse on Monday.


AFP - France on Friday banned soldiers stationed in the southwest from wearing uniform outside barracks after three paratroopers were shot dead in twin cold-blooded attacks.

"Security advice has been given, particularly at the entrances of military bases," an army spokesman told AFP, adding that soldiers "have notably been asked not to wear their uniform outside barracks".

The increased security measures apply to a whole swathe of the southwest, including Toulouse, Montauban, Pamiers and Tarbes, towns and cities that are home to most of France's elite airborne units.

The announcement came as police hunted a black-clad gunman who on Thursday calmly shot three soldiers on a shopping street in garrison town Montauban, taking the time to turn one over to finish him off at close range.

Two of the victims -- parachute sappers aged 26 and 24 -- died on the spot and a third 28-year-old from the same regiment was in critical condition following the attack.

The soldiers were killed opposite their barracks, on a street named after the renowned 1st Shock Battalion. Their unit, the 17th Parachute Engineering Regiment, recently served in Afghanistan.

The attack followed a similar killing of a soldier from another airborne regiment four days earlier in Toulouse, a city 46 kilometres (29 miles) south of Montauban.

The 30-year-old NCO from the 1st Parachute Logistics Regiment who was killed in the first attack was off duty and not in uniform when he was murdered, but he too was the victim of a killer on a scooter or motorbike.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant on Friday confirmed that the same calibre weapon had been used in both attacks, amid speculation that the killings may have been tied to the deployment of French troops in Afghanistan.

"The inquiry will establish if the same weapon was used or not. Right now, I can't say. I think that we will know during the day," Gueant said. "It's the same calibre but not necessarily the same weapon."

A source close to the investigation told AFP there were obvious similarities between the two attacks, including the fact that those killed were all of Arab origin, but that it was too early to make any links.

"Three paratroopers have been killed, using similar methods, using a weapon of the same calibre, and all three were of North African origin," the source said. The wounded soldier was of Caribbean origin, the source added.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe slammed what he said was a "cowardly and unspeakable murder".

"For now there is no proof or clue" of a link between the killings and the presence of French troops in Afghanistan, Juppe said.

"Let's not start to speculate about possible motives," he said, with local officials in shock over the killings.

"Montauban does not understand. No one understands. The regiment does not understand. There's never a valid explanation for murder, but we're dealing with a true killer," said local mayor Brigitte Bareges.

Thursday's attack saw the killer, clad in a black motorcycle outfit and a helmet with a visor, dismount from a powerful scooter and open fire on the three soldiers as they queued at a cash machine.

Local baker Pascal Paga said he was sure that the soldiers were deliberately targeted.

"There was an elderly person waiting behind the soldiers to withdraw money. The killer pushed him to one side to shoot them," he said.

According to other witnesses the killer had time to turn over one of the wounded men who was trying to crawl away and fire three more shots into him before getting back on his scooter and making his escape.

"It's senseless. They were boys with no history of trouble. They could have been my kids. The girlfriend of one of them was seven months pregnant," said the mayor, adding that the attack recalled killings by Basque separatists.

"They risked their lives over there and their families must have breathed a sigh of relief when they came back to France," said Pascal Combedazou, who works at a butcher's near the site of the shooting.

"We fear for them when they're over there and when they get back here, everything should be peaceful," he said.

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