Deadly hostage-taking in France likely a terrorist act, president says

An armed man went on a rampage in southern France, carjacking a vehicle, shooting at police and taking hostages in an hours-long standoff at a supermarket before being shot to death.

Assailant had requested release of sole surviving assailant from 2015 Paris attacks

French president Macron comments on incident in Trèbes 0:51

An armed man went on rampage on Friday in southern France, carjacking a vehicle, shooting at police and taking hostages in an hours-long standoff at a supermarket. He killed three people and wounded others before being shot to death when French police stormed the market, authorities said.

Among the seriously wounded was a French police officer who offered himself up in a hostage swap and gave police crucial details about what was going on inside the supermarket.

French President Emmanuel Macron said all evidence suggested that it was a terrorist attack — the first one since he became president in May 2017.

'Soldier of Islamic State'

France's top counterterrorism prosecutor, François Molins, said the gun-wielding man cried "Allahu akbar" and claimed he was a "soldier of the Islamic State" as he stormed a supermarket in southern France.

The drama began when the gunman hijacked a car near the medieval city of Carcassonne on Friday morning, killing one person in the car and injuring the other, according to French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb.

Police gather outside a supermarket in Trè​bes, a small town in southern France, after an armed man took hostages in the store on Friday. (Newsflare/Tarbouriech Roseline via AP)

The attacker, identified as Redouane Lakdim, 25, then fired six shots at police officers who were on their way back from jogging near Carcassonne, said Yves Lefebvre, secretary general of SGP Police-FO police union. The police were wearing athletic clothes with police insignia. One officer was shot in the shoulder, but the injury was not serious, Lefebvre said.

The shooter then went to a Super U supermarket in the nearby small town of ​Trè​bes, 100 kilometres southeast of Toulouse, taking an unknown number of people hostage.

Special police units converged on the scene and authorities blocked roads and urged residents to stay away. Police were able to evacuate some of the approximately 50 shoppers from supermarket. 

Hostage swap

One officer offered himself up in a hostage swap and was seriously injured, Collomb said. The officer managed to leave his cellphone switched on after the swap, establishing contact with officers outside the supermarket. Collomb did not say how the police officer was wounded.

The officer was identified as Col. Arnaud Beltrame. A police official who was not authorized to be publicly identified confirmed the officer's identity to The Associated Press.

The French police officer who offered to be swapped for a female hostage was identified as Col. Arnaud Beltrame, shown in a 2013 photo provided by a regional newspaper. (Ouest France via AP)

Through his phone, police heard gunshots inside the building and decided that elite forces had to storm the market, killing Lakdim, Collomb said. He said two other officers were wounded during the assault.

"He acted alone, there was no one else but him," Collomb said, speaking from Trè​bes.

A customer in the supermarket described the assailant as a "very agitated man." 

Christian Guibbert told reporters "we heard an explosion, well, several explosions. So I went to see what was happening and I saw a man lying on the floor and another person, very agitated, who had a gun in one hand and a knife in the other one."

Guibbert said he had sought shelter with his wife, sister-in-law and other customers in the butcher's refrigerator. Then he went back into the supermarket's main room and walked toward the assailant, calling police and describing the situation.

He said the man ran after him, but Guibbert escaped out an emergency market door as elite police forces arrived to storm the building.

'Small delinquent acts'

During the standoff, Lakdim requested the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole surviving assailant of the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, Collomb said.

Macron said investigators are trying to establish how the shooter obtained the gun used in the attack. Detectives will also try to find out how and when Lakdim became radicalized. He was known by police services as a small-time drug dealer.

French police officers cordon off the area around the supermarket. A man who claimed to be a 'soldier of the Islamic State' killed three people before being shot to death by police. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

"He was known for small delinquent acts, but he was known and followed, and we didn't think there was radicalization," said Collomb.

Counterterrorism investigators have taken over the probe into Friday's rampage. Prosecutor Molins said Lakdim was born in Morocco, lived in Carcassonne, and that a woman close to the suspect was taken into custody on Friday. He did not identify her.

Molins said although nothing suggested imminent action, Lakdim had been on France's terrorism watch list since 2014.

On Friday night, authorities searched a vehicle and a building in central Carcassonne. 

Rita Katz, director of Site Intelligence Group, said on Twitter that the ISIS-linked Aamaq News Agency had claimed Lakdim as one of its "soldiers." She said the statement was consistent with others made by the militant group in the wake of previous ISIS-inspired violence.

Macron said security services were checking that claim.

"I want to tell the nation tonight of my absolute determination in leading this fight," said Macron, who returned to Paris from Brussels to chair a crisis meeting with ministers and security officials.

Before Macron left Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood beside him to say: "When it comes to terrorist threats, we stand by France."

And in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement condemning the violence.

"Canada stands with France and its people. We will continue to work with our international partners to fight terrorism and prevent these senseless, cowardly acts."

France has been on high alert since a string of Islamic extremist attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed more than 200 people. The shootings occurred in a normally quiet part of France, where the main tourist attraction is the treasured old city of Carcassonne, its medieval walls and its summertime festivals.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo says the lights on the Eiffel Tower will be switched off at midnight to honour the three people who were killed. She didn't say when the tower would be relit. 

With files from CBC News