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Wednesday 16 October 2019

Gunman in Christmas market murders had two dozen convictions

Cherif Chekatt, the suspect in the shooting in Strasbourg. Photo: AP
Cherif Chekatt, the suspect in the shooting in Strasbourg. Photo: AP

Cherif Chekatt, the alleged extremist on the run after a deadly shooting at France's most famous Christmas market, had been on the radar of police and had more than two dozen convictions in three European countries.

Officials yesterday released details about Chekatt (29) as police fanned out in a massive manhunt a day after he allegedly shouted "God is great" in Arabic amid gunfire and shoot-outs with police in north-east Strasbourg that left two dead, one person brain dead and 12 others injured.

Tracked

Police had been trailing Chekatt, a Strasbourg native and one of six siblings who were "well-known" to authorities.

He had 27 convictions on his criminal record, mostly in France but also in Switzerland and Germany, said Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz.

Chekatt had also been tracked by domestic counter-intelligence service the DGSI.

Authorities say he was flagged for radicalism in prison in 2015 and put on a radical watch list then.

The 2016 court verdict in the southern German city of Singen said he was sentenced to prison in France in 2008 and in Basel, Switzerland, in 2013 for various robberies.

It was reported that he was deported to France in 2017.

The verdict said Chekatt had worked for local authorities after leaving school, and had been unemployed since 2011. He had spent a total of four years in prison.

Yesterday in Strasbourg, armed police patrolled the streets and manned checkpoints. Shops and restaurants stayed shuttered, and residents laid tributes as the city recoiled from the deadly shooting.

A soldier guards the Christmas market in Strasbourg. Photo: Reuters
A soldier guards the Christmas market in Strasbourg. Photo: Reuters

Blood stains spattered the Rue Des Grandes Arcades, a shopping street where some of the victims were shot.

In Place Kleber, at the centre of the city, well-wishers left flowers at the foot of a Christmas tree, in memory of the two people killed.

"It's destroyed the Christmas market. Nobody will want to come here," said waiter Bui (46).

"We thought it was firecrackers or a joke to begin with, what with the yellow vest protests at the moment," he said, referring to nationwide demonstrations against high living costs.

"It took about five minutes for people to realise what was going on."

The attack risks dealing a devastating blow to the city's retail and tourism industries, just as the month-long unrest may have blunted the French economy.

Police were yesterday guarding a building in the outer area of Strasbourg where Chekatt is believed to have lived.

A neighbour, who asked not to be named, said he was rarely home. She said she last saw him on Monday.

Young men from the area said they knew him as someone who seemed destabilised by his time in prison.

Sensitive

"You can just tell," said one, lightly touching the side of his head. They, too, feared being publicly named.

His apartment is in a housing project considered a "sensitive zone" by French police, just 3km from the Christmas market but seemingly a world away from its glittering boutiques and tidy streets.

At the suspect's apartment, on the fifth floor, the lock was broken and the shutters were closed.

Several neighbours said they heard the police break in, but the atmosphere yesterday was unusually calm after the overnight drama.

Mayor Roland Ries told reporters the city would not be cowed by what he said was indisputably an act of terror.

"Life must resume tomorrow. The Christmas market will reopen tomorrow and we will restart our lives on the basis of our values," he said.

"We won't let the act of a madman knock us down."

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