French police officials said the chief suspect in a deadly shooting attack on police officers patrolling the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Thursday was a 39-year-old man from a suburb east of the French capital with a criminal past.
Police said they searched the home overnight Thursday-Friday of the man they suspect killed a police officer and wounded two others before being shot dead himself on the world-famous boulevard. A police document obtained by The Associated Press identifies the address searched in the town of Chelles as the family home of Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old with a police record.
Police tape surrounded the quiet, middle-class neighborhood early Friday, as worried neighbors expressed surprise at the searches.
Cheurfi was convicted of attacking a police officer in 2001, according to archive reports by French newspaper Le Parisien.
Earlier Thursday, police said Cheurfi was a known terror suspect.
Investigators said he emerged from a car and used an automatic weapon to shoot at officers outside a Marks & Spencer’s store at the center of the Champs-Elysees. Two police officers and a woman tourist were also wounded. He was shot dead in return fire while trying to flee on foot, just meters from the Arc de Triomphe.
Dramatic footage emerged after the attack showing police shooting at the assailant.
Authorities were checking whether he had accomplices in the attack.
The Islamic State terror group had claimed responsibility for the attack and gave a pseudonym for the shooter, Abu Yussef al-Beljiki, indicating he was Belgian or had lived in Belgium.
The claim of responsibility came unusually swiftly for the group, which has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said officers were “deliberately” targeted.
The attack came just three days before the first round of the presidential elections set for Sunday.
Islamic State group-inspired attacks have killed at least 235 people in France since January 2015, by far the largest casualty figure of any Western country. France remains under a state of emergency. Security has been especially high since Tuesday, when police said they thwarted a terror attack by arresting two men.
Police and soldiers sealed off the area after the attack, ordering tourists back into hotels and blocking people from approaching the scene.
The gunfire also sent scores of tourists fleeing into side streets.
“They were running, running,” said 55-year-old Badi Ftaïti, who lives in the area. “Some were crying. There were tens, maybe even hundreds of them.”
A witness identified only as Ines told French television station BFM that she heard a shooting and saw a man’s body on the ground before police quickly evacuated the area where she works in a shop.
“People were running, bumping into each other and crashing into tables”, said a 39-year-old woman who had been dining in a restaurant off the boulevard bustling with visitors.
Nobody understood what was happening, “especially the foreign tourists,” said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The waiters told us to get out the back of the restaurant, but there was no exit so we had to hide in a back courtyard,” she said, as the lights of dozens of emergency vehicles flashed.
The two-kilometer (1.2-mile) road that links the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde is lined with high-priced real estate, luxury shops and theaters.
Some took cover in restaurants or shops, others ran into cinemas to get off the strip that is nicknamed “the most beautiful avenue in the world.”
“I heard shots and I went to see what it was. I saw two bodies on the ground and people screaming, running everywhere,” said Mehdi, a communications consultant. “I was afraid. I left. I didn’t even pay the bill!”
The attack’s impact on the outcome of one of the most unpredictable election contests in decades is unclear, but far-right leader Marine Le Pen and scandal-hit conservative Francois Fillon immediately cancelled their campaign events on Friday.
The burst of violence and rush of police action left visitors bewildered, and saddened by the new reality of a steady threat of terror attacks in the French capital.
Isabel, a 34-year-old Australian tourist, was unable to reach her lodging because of the police lines.
“I just want to go home,” she said.