Manhunt Under Way in France for Gunman Who Killed 4 at Jewish School

Police gather at the site of a shooting in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19, 2012.
Police gather at the site of a shooting in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19, 2012.

French authorities have launched a manhunt for a suspected serial killer who opened fire at a Jewish school in the southern city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two young sons and the principal's young daughter.

The French government raised its terrorism alert to the highest level for the southwestern region around Toulouse, in response to Monday's shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school by a lone gunman who sped away on a motorcycle.

It was the third fatal shooting in the Toulouse area in eight days by a gunman on a motorcycle using the same type of weapon.  In the two earlier incidents, an assailant opened fire on French soldiers of North African and French Caribbean origin, killing three of them.

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to the scene of the school attack and said he believes all three shootings were linked by "murderous" racism toward French minorities.  He said "the anti-Semitic motivation" against the Jewish school assault is "obvious."  Authorities quickly increased security at Jewish and Muslim schools and houses of worship across the region.

Witnesses say the gunman, his face disguised by a helmet, stormed into the school just before the start of morning classes and fired at the rabbi and the three children, all under age 10.  A 17-year-old boy also was shot and seriously wounded.  The attacker's first weapon jammed, prompting him to switch to a second gun.

Sarkozy called the shooting "a national tragedy" and ordered a moment of silence to be observed in all French schools on Tuesday.  He also suspended his re-election campaign until Wednesday.  The president's main challenger in the May vote, Francois Hollande, also rushed to Toulouse to pay his respects. Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Hollande later attended a memorial service at a Paris synagogue.

The rabbi and three children killed in the attack all were dual French and Israeli citizens. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the shooting as a "despicable murder" and said Israel will do everything it can to help French authorities find the killer.  His government also said the four victims will be buried in Israel. Their bodies were brought back to the Ozar Hatorah school on Monday night for a vigil attended by students.

In Washington, the White House said it is deeply saddened by the attack and condemned it as an "unprovoked and outrageous act of violence." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the shooting "in the strong possible terms" and expressed condolences to the victims' families, the Jewish community and the French people.

France is home to at least a half-million Jews who represent Europe's largest Jewish community. The Toulouse shooting was the deadliest attack on that community since the early 1980s.

A French organization that monitors anti-Semitism says 389 incidents were recorded last year, ranging from vandalism to violence. The figure reported by the Protection Service for the Jewish Community (SPCJ) marked a decline from 466 anti-Semitic acts in 2010.

The Anti-Defamation League, a U.S.-based rights group, told VOA that Toulouse has seen several "troubling" anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, including the ramming of a burning car into the front of a synagogue while a rabbi and children were inside in 2009. Vandals broke into another local synagogue in 2010 and scrawled the words "dirty Jews."

ADL's director of international affairs Michael Salberg said those incidents have left the French Jewish community feeling insecure. He said the response of French leaders and law enforcement to Monday's attack was "very positive," but he said France must do more to prevent additional tragedies. Salberg urged French authorities to be on "constant alert for danger and to keep that level of vigilance high."

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin
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