PARIS (AP) — A man who was charged last year with attacking migrants shot and killed three people at a Kurdish cultural center Friday in Paris in an assault that appeared to be specifically aimed at foreigners, authorities said.
The shooting, which also wounded three people, shook the Kurdish community in the French capital and sparked skirmishes between angry Kurds and the police. It also rattled merchants in the bustling neighborhood in central Paris on the eve of Christmas weekend and put officers on alert for more violence.
Authorities identified the suspect as a 69-year-old Paris man who had been jailed for attacking migrants living in tents and released earlier this month. Investigators were considering a possible racist motive for the shooting.
The attack occurred at noon at the cultural center and a nearby restaurant and hair salon, according to the mayor of that part of the city, Alexandra Cordebard.
Skirmishes erupted in the neighborhood a few hours later as members of the Kurdish community shouted slogans against the Turkish government, and police fired tear gas to disperse the increasingly agitated crowd. Some garbage bins were set on fire.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the suspect was clearly targeting foreigners and had acted alone and was not affiliated with any extreme-right or other radical movements.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “The Kurds of France were the target of an odious attack in the heart of Paris. Thoughts for the victims, those who are fighting to survive, to their families and loved ones.”
Shocked members of the city’s Kurdish community called it a terrorist act. They said they had recently been warned by police of threats to Kurdish targets, and they demanded justice.
Paris Prosecutor Laure Beccuau said terrorism prosecutors were in contact with investigators but had not given any indication of a terrorist motive. Darmanin was holding a special meeting Friday night to assess threats to the Kurdish community in France.
A construction worker who was on a job nearby described seeing the assailant go first to the cultural center, then to the restaurant and the hair salon. The worker told The Associated Press that he saw the assailant wound three people before two passersby in the salon intervened and stopped him.
The worker, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published because he was concerned for his safety, described the attacker as silent and calm as he wielded a small-caliber pistol.
The suspect was wounded in the face during his arrest, Beccuau said.
Police cordoned off the area in the 10th arrondissement of the French capital, on a busy street with shops and restaurants near the Gare de l’Est train station.
One of the wounded was in critical condition, and two others were hospitalized with less serious injuries, the prosecutor said.
The suspect, who is French, attended a shooting range in a sports club and had several registered weapons, Darmanin said. The man was not on any radicalism watch lists.
The suspect had past convictions for illegal weapons possession and armed violence, and was handed preliminary charges of “premeditated, armed violence of a racist nature” for the attack last year on a migrant camp in Paris, the prosecutor said.
He had been held in provisional detention in that case until Dec. 12, when he was released under judicial supervision, ordered to get psychiatric care and banned from carrying weapons.
In the attack on migrants, the suspect wielded a saber and wounded some people in a makeshift camp, said Yann Manzi of aid group Utopia 54.
He lamented the suspect’s recent release, as did Kurds who gathered at the scene of Friday’s shooting.
“We do not at all feel protected in Paris,” activist Murat Roni told The Associated Press. “We don’t feel defended by the French justice system. It’s clearly the Kurds who were targeted.”
He described the cultural center as being “like the embassy for Kurds in Paris,” a gathering place for events, political discussion and assistance with immigration procedures — “a house where all Kurds get together.”
In 2013, three female Kurdish activists, including Sakine Cansiz, a founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, were found shot dead at a Kurdish center in Paris. A Turkish citizen was charged with their killing, although suspicion also fell on the Turkish intelligence service.
Turkey’s army has been battling against Kurdish militants affiliated with the banned PKK in southeast Turkey as well as in northern Iraq. Turkey’s military also recently launched a series of air and artillery strikes against Syrian Kurdish militant targets in northern Syria.
The PKK is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey, Europe and the United States, and has led an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
France was hit with a string of deadly attacks by Islamic extremists in 2015 and 2016 and remains on alert for terrorism-related violence.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Nicolas Garriga in Paris, and Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon, contributed to this report.