One of the biggest manhunts in French history was under way last night after a gunman attacked a Jewish school in Toulouse, coldly murdering a teacher and three children.
France was left in a state of shock by the brutal nature of the executions of small children, carried out by a young man in a motor-cycle helmet who escaped on a high-powered scooter. One of the guns used was the same weapon used by a scooter-riding gunman to murder three French soldiers in two attacks in the Toulouse area last week.
Yesterday's victims were said to include a 30-year-old teacher, his children aged six and three, and a girl of eight. Investigators said that harrowing film from a security camera showed that the gunman chased one of the girls, caught her and shot her in the head.
Every available detective and internal security agent in France was mobilised last night to try to track the gunman before he kills again. Although the hunt has been placed under the control of the national "anti-terrorism squad", investigators believe that the gunman may be a deranged but calculating lone fanatic – motivated either by extreme Islamist views, or by racism.
All three soldiers shot at close range in Toulouse and Montauban last week were of North African origin. Yesterday's attack, just after 8am as children were being dropped off, targeted a Jewish school in Jolimont, a leafy northern suburb of Toulouse.
Witnesses said that they saw the gunman, dressed all in black, fire a pistol at close range at the heads of a teacher and a group of children standing outside the Ozar Hatorah college. When his first gun jammed, the attacker produced another weapon – believed to be the same heavy calibre as a hand-gun used last week – and chased other children into the school itself. Several were seriously wounded and one of them, a 17-year-old boy, was in a critical condition last night.
One eye-witness, who gave his name as Alian, told French television: "These were not random shootings. I saw the man go up to the children one by one and point a gun at their heads and fire. Then he chased other children into the building." Franck Califa, a teacher at the school, which serves the 25,000-strong Jewish community, said: "All I have is tears. I can say nothing. I am in a state of shock."
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who went immediately to the scene, described the murders as an "appalling national tragedy" and ordered one minute's silence in all French schools this morning. "Whoever did this should know that everything, absolutely everything, will be done to track him down," Mr Sarkozy said. "Barbarism, savagery and cruelty cannot prevail. Our Republic is too strong for that, much too strong."
The attacks coincide with the presidential campaign, which Mr Sarkozy has steered towards questions of "national identity" and immigration. The Socialist candidate François Hollande, abandoned his campaign and travelled to Toulouse to express his solidarity with the Jewish community.
The Interior Minister, Claude Guéant, has been ordered by Mr Sarkozy to remain in Toulouse until the killer is found. Mr Guéant said that there were "striking similarities between the attacks on our soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban [last week] and this horrible attack on children this morning."
Thousands of detectives, and the agents of the internal security service, were instructed to put aside other investigations and concentrate on the hunt for the gunman.
In all three attacks the gunman used a motor-bike or scooter. In all three, he was dressed in black. In the two attacks last Monday and Thursday, a single gun was used, an old US-army 11.43 calibre revolver. Some of the cartridges found at the scene of yesterday's murders were of 11.43 calibre. Others came from a 9mm pistol.
In the first of last week's attacks, in Toulouse, the killer lured his victim into an ambush by answering his advertisement of a motor-bike for sale. In the second attack, in Montauban on Thursday, the gunman shot three uniformed paratroopers in broad daylight as they withdrew money from a cash-machine. The three dead men were all of North African origin. The fourth victim, who is still in a coma, was a black man from the French West Indies.
Investigators believed at first that the attacks might be connected to the presence of French troops in Afghanistan. Before yesterday, they were veering towards the theory of a "lone nut" with extreme racist views or a grudge against the army.
City profile: cultural melting pot
Located in the south-west of France, north of the Pyrenees, Toulouse is known as the "Ville Rose" because of the pink colour of its brickwork.
A cosmopolitan town, with a rich cultural and intellectual history, it has the second-highest student population in France after Paris and has a culturally and ethnically diverse population. France has the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, estimated at about 500,000, as well as its largest Muslim population, about five million.
Toulouse has between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews in its overall population of 440,000, according to Jean-Paul Amoyelle, president of the Ozar Hatorah school network. He said the Toulouse Jewish community is well integrated. Jenny StevensReuse content