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article imageEerie quiet in France's 'Christmas capital'

By Marie DHUMIERES (AFP)     Dec 12, 2018 in World

Around two million people converge on the picture-perfect island at the heart of Strasbourg every year for the Christmas market. On Wednesday, the streets were empty and the usual festive cheer was gone.

"There was a knot in my stomach when I went to work this morning. We don't know how this is going to go," said Cathia, a delivery woman who lives just south of the city.

She was at the market when a gunman attacked on Tuesday night, sending thousands of people running for safety and prompting a security lockdown in the city that markets itself as the "capital of Christmas."

French soldiers stand guard at the closed Christmas market in Strasbourg cathedral after a shooting ...
French soldiers stand guard at the closed Christmas market in Strasbourg cathedral after a shooting spree left three dead
Patrick HERTZOG, AFP

Hundreds hid in bars and restaurants and were finally escorted home in the early evening.

The city remained on edge on Wednesday as more than 700 police and soldiers joined a massive manhunt for the suspected shooter, a 29-year-old Strasbourg native who lived in a rundown apartment a short drive from the market.

"Everything is closed", two Spanish tourists despaired, sitting at a cafe table amid the shuttered chalets at the Christmas market whose lights have been switched off.

A map of the city on their knees, they looked for something else to do.

Flags were lowered to half-staff on government buildings and theatre performances and other shows were cancelled. Schools remained open for parents unable to keep their children at home.

"It seems like a city under siege," said Joel Bigorgne, a tourist from Brittany, France.

The annual market has become a veritable fortress since 2015, when France suffered jihadist terror strikes that left scores dead and marked the beginning of a wave of attacks.

Access to the central island formed by the River Ill is tightly controlled via the nearly 20 bridges connecting it to the rest of the city, but this did not stop Tuesday's killer slipping past with a knife and handgun.

For Christmas, the island becomes home to around 300 wooden chalets warming visitors with mulled wine and sausages, under the dazzling lights of a 30-metre (100-foot) fir tree in Kleber Square.

On Tuesday night, wounded victims could be seen in the city's narrow streets and alleyways which are flanked by traditional Alsatian town houses with their exposed wooden beams.

Strasbourg's Christmas market has long been a prime target  with French authorities foiling a b...
Strasbourg's Christmas market has long been a prime target, with French authorities foiling a bomb plot as far back as December 2000, when four men suspected of Al Qaeda links were arrested
SEBASTIEN BOZON, AFP

"I'm having a hard time believing what happened here," said Antoine, a 20-year-old medical student in the city of 300,000 people which lies on the border with Germany.

"This is a first for Strasbourg, it's really a peaceful city."

- 'Threat very high' -

The market has long been a prime target, with French authorities foiling a bomb plot as far back as December 2000, when four men suspected of Al Qaeda links were arrested.

Concrete bollards and trenches dug between tramway lines are now a common site, to avoid runaway vehicle attacks like that which struck Berlin's Christmas market in 2016, killing 12.

That attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, which has inspired other jihadist violence in France that has killed more than 248 people since 2015.

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said the market would be closed Wednesday  but even if it reopens in th...
Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said the market would be closed Wednesday, but even if it reopens in the coming days, a lingering apprehension will likely cast a pall over the Christmas cheer
SEBASTIEN BOZON, AFP/File

"The terror threat remains very high," junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said on November 23 during this year's inauguration of the market.

"Our forces are ready to secure this major event for Strasbourg and France, with lots of visitors from around the world," he said.

The security budget has more than tripled since 2015 to stand at one million euros ($1.13 million).

Around 260 police officers are deployed on a normal day, bolstered by 160 private security agents and 50 municipal police agents.

Dozens of soldiers from France's anti-terror Sentinelle operation, created after the January 2015 massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, also carry out patrols.

It was Sentinelle soldiers alerted by the shots who first engaged with the gunman. He later exchanged fire with other security forces before fleeing in a commandeered taxi.

- Gloomy atmosphere -

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said the market would be closed Wednesday, but even if it reopens in the coming days, a lingering apprehension will likely cast a pall over the Christmas cheer.

With the market locked down, Mathilde and Adrien, both 21, settled on a glass of white wine, instead of the traditional mulled version.

"We were lucky, we had a good time yesterday," they said, listing off the "magnificent" illuminations, the festive atmosphere.

"Today it's a little gloomy," said Mathilde.

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