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French police detain fifth person linked to Strasbourg attack suspect

Sebastien Bozon / AFP | French police special forces RAID conduct an operation Dec. 13, 2018 at the Neudorf neighbourhood in Strasbourg.

A manhunt for the suspect in the deadly Strasbourg Christmas market shooting focused on the Neudorf district of the eastern French city Thursday as authorities detained a fifth person for questioning.

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Members of France’selite RAID force fanned out Thursday along a street in Strasbourg’s Neudorf district, some with their guns trained on the houses in front of them while other officers extended a security perimeter in the neighbourhood.

The operation lasted a few hours, and was wrapped up as darkness fell over the eastern French city.

“Police have announced that the operation for now, in this neighbourhood and in at least two other neighbourhoods in Strasbourg, has now come to an end as they continue their search,” said FRANCE 24’s Nadia Massih, reporting from Strasbourg.

FRANCE 24's Nadia Massih reports from Strasbourg

The suspect – identified as 29-year-old Chérif Chekatt - was last seen in the district on Tuesday, when exchanging fire with security officers after getting out of a taxi that he hailed following the Christmas market attack.

“Hundreds of police as well as soldiers from [France’s counter-terror] Operation Sentinel have been deployed here in France and are on the hunt,” said Massih.

Two days after the attack, which killed three people, French authorities detained a fifth person for questioning on Thursday, in addition to the suspect's parents and two brothers who have been in custody since Wednesday.

A massive, cross-border manhunt

French police have appealed for help in finding Chekatt, who they described as armed and dangerous.

Strasbourg's location in the heart of western Europe near the French-Germany border 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.

An attack on a historic Christmas market

Around 7:50pm (6:50pm GMT) on Tuesday, a lone gunman opened fire several times in the centre of Strasbourg, home to one of Europe’s most famous Christmas markets and which attracts huge crowds of shoppers and tourists.

Two people died at the scene and a third victim died Thursday in hospital.

The suspect was quickly identified as 29-year-old Chekatt, born in Strasbourg and already known to the police. He cried "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as he opened fire, France's anti-terror prosecutor Rémy Heitz told a news conference on Wednesday, citing witnesses.

Heitz said the suspected gunman was shot in the arm during an exchange of fire with French soldiers in the city centre and then took a taxi to the Neuburg district.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner told lawmakers in Paris that three people tried to stop Chekatt, one of whom was stabbed but not killed.

On the morning of the attack, French police conducted a raid on Chekatt’s house in Strasbourg, where they found a grenade, a rifle and four knives. They had wanted to take him into custody in connection with another crime but were unable to locate him.

The busy Christmas market had been under close surveillance, notably because it was the target of a planned attack in December 2000.

Suspect known to security services

The suspect has a long criminal record, having been convicted 27 times in France, Switzerland and Germany.

Who is the Strasbourg shooting suspect?

Chekatt was flagged by French security forces in 2015 as a possible extremist while in prison after he "called for practising a radical form of religion", Deputy Interior Minister Laurent Nunez told France Inter radio.

He lived in a rundown housing estate a short drive from the Christmas market, which draws some 2 million people each year to its wooden chalets selling festive decorations, mulled wine and food.

"His family has lived around here for a while, but he lived on his own nearby," Zach, a 22-year-old in the Poteries area of Strasbourg, told AFP. "He was discreet, not a thug."

The government has raised its security alert for terrorism to its highest level, reinforcing border controls and patrols at all Christmas markets across France.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced Wednesday that France's anti-terror Sentinelle operation, which counts around 7,000 soldiers, will be boosted by another 1,800 troops over the coming days.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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