PARIS - A gunman walked into a rural French supermarket, took hostages and opened fire Friday morning, in the latest attack in a country that has borne the brunt of Europe’s recent struggle with terrorist violence. By midafternoon, police had shot and killed the suspect, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb announced.
According to Collomb, three people were killed in the incident in the southwestern French town of Trebes, not far from Toulouse. The Paris prosecutor’s office, which handles terrorism cases nationwide, opened an investigation into the ongoing incident almost immediately, and security forces scrambled to secure the area around the Super U supermarket.
“All the information we have at our disposal leads us to believe it would seem to be a terrorist act,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe told reporters early Friday afternoon.
President Emmanuel Macron, speaking before the announcement of the suspect’s death, vowed a swift security response, including “the entire mobilization of state services and in particular the police forces” to “secure the area and the surroundings.”
The incident represented one of the first significant national security incidents during Macron’s tenure as president. Collomb, the interior minister, quickly made his way to the scene, as did François Molins, the Paris prosecutor.
Collomb confirmed the identity of the attacker: a 26-year-old local man from Carcassonne whom he called a “small drug dealer” and who had apparently acted alone.
According to French media reports, the attacker claimed to be connected to the Islamic State. After he was killed by French authorities, the Islamic State - through its Amaq news arm - then identified him as a “soldier” and claimed responsibility for the attack.
Although other previous terrorist attacks in France have been undertaken by operatives of the Islamic State, a number of others have been carried out by so-called “lone wolf” assailants inspired by the group. In the past, the Islamic State has similarly claimed as “soldiers” other attackers whose actual connection to the group could not be verified.
In any case, Collomb disputed the notion that the suspect was involved with the organization. “We do not think there was radicalization,” he said Friday afternoon.
Speaking from Brussels, Macron reiterated that France nevertheless has an internal struggle with radicalization. “A lot of people have radicalized themselves,” he said. “Some of them come from psychiatric pathologies; you have individuals who are followed very closely, but who constitute a terrorist threat.”
The hostage attack in Trebes followed an earlier incident Friday morning in which the same man opened fire on four members of France’s national police force - the Republican Security Companies, or CRS - in the nearby city of Carcassonne, wounding one of the officers, authorities now believe. Earlier in the day, a connection between the two incidents was not immediately apparent.
For French authorities, what was particularly alarming about the events Friday morning was that the targeted area was quiet and provincial, far from the big cities that have typically attracted terrorist violence in the past.
“This can strike no matter where, no matter when, no matter how,” said Yves Lefebvre, the head of France’s SGP police union, speaking on Europe 1 radio.
Collomb echoed that sentiment in his remarks. “We are in a quiet little town, but alas, the threat is everywhere,” he said.
The hostage scenario at the supermarket immediately recalled a January 2015 anti-Semitic attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket outside Paris, in which four people were killed. In that case, the perpetrator - in a posthumously released video - also declared his allegiance to the Islamic State, but his contacts with the terrorist organization before the Hyper Cacher attack were unclear.
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In recent years, France has borne the lion’s share of Europe’s struggle with terrorist violence. Since January 2015, about 230 people have been killed in a string of attacks that included a coordinated Islamic State-orchestrated assault on Paris in November 2015, as well as a July 2016 truck attack on a seaside promenade in Nice, where a driver plowed through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, France’s national holiday.
Although the Nice attack was the last major assault on French soil to claim dozens of casualties, smaller-scale terrorist incidents have continued in the years since, and the French government regularly reports foiled terrorist plots.