PARIS (Reuters) - A French policeman was shot dead and two others were wounded on the Champs-Elysees boulevard in central Paris on Thursday night, before the attacker himself was shot dead by police, in an attack carried out three days before a hotly contested presidential election.
The Islamic State terror group claimed the shooting, via its Amaq news agency, naming the attacker as “Abu Yousif the Belgian.” President Francois Hollande said he was convinced it was a terror attack.
The wide avenue that leads away from the Arc de Triomphe had been crowded with Parisians and tourists enjoying a spring evening; but police quickly cleared the area, which remained empty well into the night of all but heavily armed police officers and police vehicles.
Officers were searching the eastern Paris home of the dead attacker.
Police at the scene said they were searching for a potential second assailant, and Interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said it could not be ruled out that there was one or more additional perpetrators.
Witness Chelloug, a kitchen assistant, told Reuters she was walking out of a shop and saw a man get out of car and open fire with a rifle on a policeman. “The policeman fell down. I heard six shots, I was afraid. I have a two-year-old girl and I thought I was going to die … He shot straight at the police officer.”
“A little after 9 p.m., a vehicle stopped alongside a parked police car. Immediately, a man got out and fired on the police vehicle, mortally wounding a police officer,” Brandet said.
The quick claim of responsibility by Islamic State and the naming of the terrorist suggested a degree of direct contact with Islamic State. The group also claimed responsibility for a car attack in London last month that killed four, but gave no name or details.
Police authorities called on the public to avoid the area.
TV footage showed the Arc de Triomphe monument and the top half of the Champs Elysees packed with police vans, lights flashing, and heavily armed police shutting the area down after what was described by one journalist as a major exchange of fire.
The attack came as French voters prepared go to the polls on Sunday in the most tightly contested presidential election in living memory.
“We shall be of the utmost vigilance, especially in relation to the election,” said President Hollande, who is not himself running for re-election.
Earlier this week, two men were arrested in Marseilles who police said had been planning an attack ahead of the election.
A machine gun, two handguns and more than six pounds of TATP explosive were among the weapons found at an apartment in the southern city, along with jihadist propaganda materials, according to the Paris prosecutor.
That incident brought issues of security and immigration back to the forefront of the campaign, with the anti-immigration National Front leader Marine Le Pen repeating her call for Europe’s borders to be closed.
On Thursday, speaking after a TV appearance, she said she was “deeply angry” as well as sad for the police victims “because not everything is done … to protect our compatriots. They need more than our compassion.”
Candidates in the election said they had been warned about the Marseilles attackers. Francois Fillon, the conservative candidate, said he would cancel the campaign events he had been planning for Friday.
He also called for campaigning generally to be suspended, although the law says it has to stop anyway from midnight Friday. Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon said campaigning should continue.
France has lived under a state of emergency since 2015, and has suffered a spate of Islamist terror attacks – mostly perpetrated by young men who grew up in France and Belgium – which that have killed more than 230 people in the past two years.
In November 2015, Paris was rocked by near-simultaneous gun-and-bomb attacks on entertainment sites, in which 130 people died and 368 were wounded. Islamic State claimed responsibility. Two of the 10 known perpetrators were Belgian citizens and three others were French.
In another of the most serious attacks on France, in July 2016, a Tunisian man pledging allegiance to Islamic State rammed a truck through a crowd in the southern city of Nice, killing 86 people.
Updated Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 7:09 pm