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Dutch police search for motives of Utrecht shooter

John Thys, AFP | Policemen and rescuers are at work, on March 18, 2019, in Utrecht near the site of a deadly shooting attack.

Dutch prosecutors and police said Tuesday they were taking "seriously" the possibility of a terrorist motive behind the Utrecht tram attack based on evidence including a letter found in the main suspect's getaway car.

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Dutch authorities were searching Tuesday for the motive behind a gun attack on an Utrecht tram that killed three people a day earlier, withDutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying authorities were trying to determine whether the attack had "terror motives".

The Turkish-born main suspect, identified as Gokmen Tanis, 37, was known to authorities and had a criminal record, said Justice Minister Ferd Grapperhaus.

Tanis was detained Monday after a manhunt that saw the historic city of nearly 350,000 people under a security lockdown for most of the day.

"So far, a terrorist motive is seriously being taken into account. This is based on a letter found in the getaway car among other things and the nature of the facts," Dutch police and prosecutors said in a joint statement.

Armed counter-terrorism officers meanwhile arrested one new suspect, aged 40, in Utrecht who was "suspected of being involved in the shooting incident", prosecutors said, adding that his "role was being further investigated".

Two other men who were arrested Monday in connection with the shooting had been released, prosecutors added.

Reporting from The Hague, FRANCE 24’s Stephanie Van den Berg said the suspect can be held for three days before appearing before a judge under Dutch law.

“The main question that everyone is trying to figure out is what exactly was the motive because we’re hearing mixed things," she said. "We’re hearing from his friends and family that the gunman is a psychiatric patient, that he has psychiatric trouble and that he had some kind of family feud and may be this shooting is related to that."

“On the other hand, there are also reports that he is linked to extremist Islam via a brother who fought in Chechnya and went through periods of being extremely devout and Muslim, and also periods of using a lot of drugs and kind of spiraling out of control.”

While the identities of the victims have not been officially released, Van den Berg said the names of some of the victims have been mentioned on social media sites. Their identities could provide clues about the motives for the attack, she said.

“There are rumours that one of the victims is somehow related to the gunman. But we don’t have anything confirmed, and among the victims who have been named on social media, they don’t seem to have any link to the gunman.”

Motive remains main unanswered question

Local media said Tanis had been charged several times over the past years with offences ranging from attempted manslaughter to petty crime in and around Utrecht. Two weeks ago he was in court on charges of raping of woman in 2017, news reports said.

Tightened security

The shooting came three days after 50 people were killed when an immigrant-hating white supremacist opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, during Friday prayers. There was no immediate indication of any link between the two events.

The Utrecht attack took place at a busy intersection in a residential neighbourhood. The gunman was alleged to have had an automatic weapon, said Grapperhaus.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Dutch authorities put the Netherlands' fourth-largest city on lockdown, raised the threat level in the area to the maximum of five and tightened security at airports and key buildings in the country. Police issued a photo of a bearded Tanis aboard a tram in a blue hooded top.

"If it is a terror attack," the prime minister declared, "then we have only one answer: Our nation, democracy, must be stronger than fanaticism and violence."

Heavily armed officers with dogs searched for the killer, gathering at one point in front of an apartment building close to the scene. However, the suspect was later arrested at another location in the city. The threat level soon returned to four.

Police said a red Renault compact car was carjacked shortly before the shooting and later found across town.

Reports of targeting a woman

The drama began when gunfire broke out on a tram near the 24 Oktoberplein square, sending people fleeing from the tram and triggering a huge police response.

Reports in Dutch media quoted eyewitnesses as saying the gunman appeared to target one woman and others who tried to help her.

One witness told broadcaster NOS they saw an injured woman running out of the tram with blood on her hands and clothes who then fell to the ground.

"I brought her into my car and helped her. When the police arrived, she was unconscious," the witness, who was not named, told NOS.

A body covered in a white sheet could later be seen lying on the tram tracks.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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