STRASBOURG, France: A man who had been flagged as a possible extremist sprayed gunfire near the city of Strasbourg's famous Christmas market on Tuesday, killing three people, wounding up to a dozen and sparking a massive manhunt.
France immediately raised its terror alert level.
It was unclear if the market - a popular gathering place that was the nucleus of an al-Qaida-linked plot in 2000 - was the intended target. The assailant got inside a security zone around the venue and opened fire from there, Mayor Roland Ries said on BFM television.
Authorities did not give a motive for the shooting, though prosecutors said they had opened a terrorism investigation. Strasbourg, on France's eastern border, is home to the European Parliament, one of several places that was locked down after the shooting.
Authorities said they had identified a suspect. The prefect of the Strasbourg region said the man was on a watch list of people who had potentially been radicalized.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, who traveled to Strasbourg, said the suspect, not named, had been convicted in both France and Germany for crimes unrelated to terrorism and served time. He did not elaborate.
Hours before the shooting, French gendarmes went to the suspect's home to arrest him, but he wasn't there, Stephane Morisse of police union FGP said. They found explosive materials during a search, he said.
France, where most of Europe's worst terror attacks of recent years took place, was raising its terror alert level and sending security reinforcements to Strasbourg, Castaner said early on Wednesday.
The attack came two years after a Tunisian man drove a hijacked truck into a busy Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people. Strasbourg, which promotes itself as the "Capital of Christmas,'' on the border with Germany, about 500 kilometres east of Paris. The market, France's largest, is set up around the city's cathedral during the Christmas season.
About 350 security officers and two helicopters were searching for the assailant, who had been radicalized for "several years'' and confronted law enforcement officers twice, exchanging fire, while he "sowed terror,'' Castaner said.
The death toll stood at three early Wednesday, the minister said. Two police union officials said earlier there were four victims. Officials did not explain the conflicting numbers.
More than seven hours after the bloodshed, the regional prefect said that 11 other people had been injured, five seriously, downgrading the minister's earlier count of 12 injured.
The shooter was also shot and wounded by soldiers guarding the Christmas market, according to Stephane Morisse of police union FGP.
French military spokesman Col. Patrik Steiger said the shooter did not seem to be aiming at soldiers patrolling in and around the market, but appeared to target civilians instead.
The market was closed Wednesday and festivities cancelled in a sign of mourning, Mayor Roland Ries said. Flags in Strasbourg were ordered at half-staff.