PARIS, France — (DMN/BBC) – French police are linking the shootings of four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse to the killings of three soldiers of North African descent in two separate incidents last week. The same gun and the same stolen scooter were used in all three attacks, sources close to the investigation say. A teacher and three children were shot dead at the Ozar Hatorah school, and a teenage boy was seriously injured. One of the biggest manhunts in France in recent times is now under way. Investigations are pursuing two principal lines of inquiry: an Islamist motive or the far right.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who flew to Toulouse in the wake of the attack, described it as a “national tragedy”. He said a single person had carried out all three attacks and that an “anti-Semitic motive” seemed obvious. Guards are to be posted outside all faith-based schools, as well as all Jewish and Muslim religious buildings, he said. Mr Sarkozy has also placed south-west France on the highest level of terrorism alert. All schools in France will observe a minute’s silence on Tuesday morning at 11:00 (10:00 GMT).
The latest shootings took place as parents were taking their children to the school on Monday morning. Witnesses said the gunman pulled up on a black scooter and began shooting at an area which serves as the drop-off point for the school’s nursery- and primary-age children. “This man alighted from his moped and, as he was outside the school, he shot at everybody who was near him, children or adults. Children were chased right into the school,” local prosecutor Michel Valet told journalists. The scooter – a black Yamaha – was stolen in Toulouse on 6 March, five days before the first shooting. Its number plate was picked up by closed-circuit TV cameras at the school, police sources said.
The dead were Jonathan Sandler, a 30-year-old rabbi and teacher of religion originally from Jerusalem, and his two sons, aged three and six. The fourth person killed was an eight-year-old girl, daughter of the head teacher. All the dead were dual French-Israeli nationals and will be buried in Israel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. A 17-year-old boy was seriously hurt. The head of Toulouse’s Jewish community told the AFP news agency the boy had undergone several operations but he was likely to recover.
Initially, the killer used a 9mm gun, but when it jammed, he switched to a .45 calibre weapon. Police say the .45 was the same gun used to kill three soldiers in two separate shootings in Toulouse and the nearby city of Montauban last week. All three were of North African or Caribbean origin. A paratrooper out of uniform was shot dead in a residential area of Toulouse just over a week ago, while two soldiers were killed and a third wounded as they used a cash machine in the town of Montauban, some 29 miles (46km) away, on Thursday.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “a loathsome murder of Jews, which included small children” and said an anti-Semitic motive could not be ruled out. All the candidates in the French presidential election have suspended campaigning. Mr Sarkozy said his campaign would remain suspended until Wednesday at the earliest, when he is due to attend the soldiers’ funerals. As well as Mr Sarkozy, opposition Socialist candidate Francois Hollande visited Toulouse to offer his condolences. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen called on the authorities to do everything to prevent another such attack.
In the UK, Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the attack. “This act of calculated cruelty will unite all decent people in revulsion and condemnation,” he said. The BBC’s Hugh Schofield, in Paris, says not since the 1970s and early 80s have there been lethal attacks like this in France on Jewish targets. And even then, children were never the primary victims, he says. Six people were killed and 22 injured in an attack in 1982 on a Jewish restaurant in Paris. France has the largest Jewish community in western Europe, numbering some 500,000.
Manhunt in France for racist serial killer as four shot dead in Jewish school
Just before 8am, Ethel Guedj dropped off two of her sons, aged 15 and 11, at the Ozar Hatorah private Jewish secondary school in a quiet residential street of north east Toulouse. As usual, there were young children milling in front of the gates, waiting to be taken to the nearby primary school. Guedj’s sons followed other teenagers into morning prayers and had barely put down their briefcases when they heard shots ring out.
A gunman had pulled up on an expensive motorbike with a big engine, dismounted and pulled out two high-calibre handguns. He fired at “everything in front of him, children and adults,” the state prosecutor said. He shot dead Jonathan Sandler, a 30-year-old French-Israeli rabbi who had recently joined the staff to teach Yiddish, and Sandler’s two sons, aged six and three. Then he stepped over the bodies and chased children into the school courtyard where witnesses said he pursued a child, the 10-year-old daughter of the principal, grabbed her by the hair, pulled her to him and shot her at close range. “My sons saw the bodies, there was blood everywhere,” said Guedj as she stood crying, face contorted in horror, outside the school. “My son was saying, ‘We were praying, Mum, but our prayers didn’t work’. “
Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris
It is now established beyond doubt that the three incidents in Toulouse and Montauban were the work of the same man. He used the same gun, rode the same 500cc Yamaha scooter, and acted with the same cold-blooded brutality.
But why the widely differing choice of targets: soldiers and Jewish children? One theory is that the man is a deranged far-rightwinger. It is noted that the three dead soldiers were of North African origin, and a fourth who was injured is from the French Caribbean.
The killer has a clear affinity with guns. Could he be a neo-Nazi type – maybe an ex-soldier or a member of the criminal underworld – with a hatred of all minorities, Jews and Muslims?
Some have gone further – indirectly pointing the finger at President Sarkozy for recently raising sensitive issues such as halal and kosher meat in the run-up to the presidential election. This tactic, they say, gives credibility to the far-right and ‘delegitimises’ the Muslim and Jewish communities.
The problem with this theory is that it is not yet established that the killer deliberately targeted Muslim soldiers.
France is in a state of shock and revulsion after the rabbi and three children were killed in the most brutal attack on the French Jewish community in decades, which also left another 17-year-old boy fighting for his life in hospital. The mood, described as “blind panic” by one witness to the shootings, is heightened by a fear that France has been struck by a serial killer on the loose who is targeting minorities. One of the biggest manhunts in modern French history is under way after prosecutors confirmed that the gunman, who sped off on the motorbike, used the same stolen bike and same powerful high calibre handgun as was used in two “ride-by” motorbike shootings last week which targeted soldiers of north African and black Caribbean origin.
Three soldiers were killed, including two Muslims, and another is in a critical condition after the gunman opened fire on a soldier in Toulouse eight days ago and then targeted three paratroopers at a cashpoint in the nearby town of Montaubun on Thursday. “Everything leads one to believe that these were racist and antisemitic acts,” said the mayor of Toulouse, Pierre Cohen. Outside the school on a quiet street with pastel houses and wooden shutters and the first blossom of spring on the trees, one mother of two described a “psychosis of fear” as numbered bullet-holes were highlighted in the school’s aluminium fence. She said: “Toulouse has been shut down. What if the attacker is hiding in the area?”
Attacks in south-west France
11 March: Off-duty airborne sergeant shot dead in Toulouse while waiting to see man about selling his motorbike
15 March: Two paratroopers shot dead and a third seriously injured while waiting at a cash machine in Montauban
19 March: Three children and a teacher shot dead, and a youth injured, at a Jewish school in Toulouse
Speculation was rife as to what type of person the killer is. The news weekly Le Point said that one line of inquiry is to examine former paratroopers who had been expelled from their regiment in the area in 2008 for neo-nazi behaviour. Authorities did not immediately comment on the report. A 29-year-old classroom assistant who gave his name as Baroukh said: “When we heard the shots we ran with the children through an emergency exit into the basement to hide. The gunman fired again at the bodies on the ground, he hit some twice.” Children described how they whispered and prayed, hiding in the basement, unsure if the gunman was still in the school.
Simon Mana, 20, a former pupil who now works as a classroom assistant, said he heard the shots and arrived at the school as the children’s bodies were being covered with sheets. “It was total panic. Children were crying and jumping into my arms. Just days before I had been hugging the children who died. We’re lost, everyone is lost, totally lost and in shock.” The shootings led politicians to immediately suspend all campaigning in the presidential election, being held on 22 April and 6 May, as some speculated what effect the attack could have on a campaign battle where issues of religion, ethnic minorities and national identity had featured strongly, and the right had been accused of stoking tensions by forcing the marginal topic of halal meat and religious slaughter into the centre of the election debate.
President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to the school, calling it a day of national tragedy. He said: “Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win.” The Socialist presidential frontrunner, François Hollande also visited the school to condemn the “terrible, horrible drama” and call on France to unite. One 48-year-old father who lived near the school felt the shooting would heighten the mood of worry and fear around this “already very emotional election campaign.”
In 2002, a brutal attack on a pensioner shortly before the first-round presidential vote pushed crime and security issues on to the agenda and was felt to have contributed to the shock elimination of the Socialist candidate, beaten by the extreme right Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen. Toulouse has one of the largest Jewish communities in France, well-integrated and mainly of north African heritage: Morrocan, Tunisian and Algerian. France has the largest Jewish community in western Europe, estimated at about 500,000, as well as its largest Muslim population, about five million.
Sarkozy ordered increased security at Jewish and Muslim buildings around Toulouse, while his prime minister, François Fillon, told officials to secure all school and religious buildings in the entire country. “Just because we are different doesn’t mean we should be killed,” said one father in tears outside the school. Sandrine Roix, a local mother of two who knew children at the school said: “The mood is shock and fear. Everyone looking around for the motorbike. This must have been a fanatic, someone who’s ill. Everyone is afraid. It takes madness to do this, but will he be caught or strike again? People like this are uncontrollable.” Several witness said the gunman kept his motorcycle helmet on during the attack. But one mother, whose son witnessed the attack and was still reeling in shock, said he had stared directly at the children with “clear, green eyes”.