PARIS A French policeman was shot dead and two others were wounded in a shooting in central Paris on Thursday night before the gunman himself was killed by officers, police and the Interior Ministry said.
A second suspect thought to be involved in the incident on the Champs Elysees shopping boulevard just days ahead of France’s presidential election was still on the loose.
The famous wide street that leads away from the Arc de Triomphe that had earlier been crowded with Parisians and tourists enjoying a spring evening remained closed off at around 11:00 PM (2100 GMT), some two hours or more after the incident.
France has lived under a state of emergency since 2015 and has suffered a spate of Islamist militant attacks that have killed more than 230 people in the past two years.
The French prosecutors’ office said the counter-terrorism office had opened an inquiry. Interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said it was too early to say what the motive of the attack was, but that it was clear the police officers had been deliberately targeted.
“A little after 9 PM a vehicle stopped alongside a police car which was parked. Immediately a man got out and fired on the police vehicle, mortally wounding a police officer,” Brandet said.
Officers at the scene said they were searching for a potential second assailant, and a police source said an arrest warrant had been issued for a suspect in the shooting who had arrived in Paris from Belgium by train.
Officers also conducted a search at the home in eastern Paris of the dead attacker.
“I came out of the Sephora shop and I was walking along the pavement…. A man got out of a car and opened fire with a kalashnikov on a policeman,” witness Chelloug, a kitchen assistant, told Reuters.
“The policeman fell down. I heard six shots, I was afraid. I have a two year-old girl and I thought I was going to die… He shot straight at the police officer.”
Police authorities called on the public to avoid the area.
TV footage showed the Arc de Triomphe monument and top half of the Champs Elysees packed with police vans, lights flashing and heavily armed police shutting the area down after what was described by one journalist as a major exchange of fire near a Marks and Spencers store.
The incident came as French voters prepared go to the polls on Sunday in the most tightly-contested presidential election in living memory.
Earlier this week, two men were arrested in Marseille who police said had been planning an attack ahead of the election.
A machine gun, two hand guns and three kilos of TATP explosive were among the weapons found at a flat in the southern city along with jihadist propaganda materials according to the Paris prosecutor.
Candidates in the election said they had been warned about the Marseille attackers. Francois Fillon, who is the conservative candidate, said he would cancel the campaign events had had been planning for Friday as a result of Thursday’s attack.
(Reporting by Richard Balmforth; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Andrew Callus)