France hunts cold-blooded gunman
Montauban - French police were hunting on Friday for a black-clad gunman who calmly shot three soldiers on a shopping street in broad daylight, then turned one over and finished him off at close range.
Two of the victims - parachute sappers aged 26 and 24 - died on the spot, in the southern garrison town of Montauban, and a third 28-year-old from the same regiment was in critical condition following the attack.
Asked whether the shootings could have been an act of terrorism, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said nothing had been ruled out, but the motive for the cold-blooded murders remained a complete mystery to stunned local officials.
"Montauban does not understand. No one understands. The regiment does not understand. There's never a valid explanation for murder, but we're dealing with a true killer," said local mayor Brigitte Bareges.
On Thursday, at about 14:10 three uniformed soldiers from the 17th Parachute Engineering Regiment, which recently served in Afghanistan, were standing by a bank's cash machine on a main street near their barracks.
Most of France's elite airborne units are based in the southwest region and have close ties with their regimental towns. The soldiers were killed opposite their barracks, on a street named after the renowned 1st Shock Battalion.
The killer, clad in a black motorcycle outfit and a helmet with a visor, got down from a powerful Yamaha T-Max scooter and opened fire.
Local baker Pascal Paga said he had been cleaning his windows when the soldiers arrived. They had said they were going to get some money from the machine to buy cans of Coke so he had gone inside to serve another client.
Paga was sure that the soldiers were deliberately targeted.
"There was an elderly person waiting behind the soldiers to withdraw money. The killer pushed him to one side to shoot them," he said.
According to other witnesses the killer had time to turn over one of the wounded men who was trying to crawl away and fire three more shots into him before getting back on his scooter and making his escape.
"It's senseless. They were boys with no history of trouble. They could have been my kids. The girlfriend of one of them was seven months pregnant," said the mayor, who said the attack recalled killings by Basque separatists.
For his part, Longuet was more cautious, declaring that while nothing had been ruled out, there was no evidence of a political motive.
"I really don't think so. I hope not. But at the moment nothing permits us to rule out one theory or another," he said after visiting the barracks.
Police sources said that the crime resembled a similar killing four days earlier in Toulouse, a city 46km south of Montauban, where a soldier from another airborne regiment was shot dead.
The 30-year-old NCO from the 1st Parachute Logistics Regiment who was killed in the first attack was off duty and not in uniform when he was murdered, but he too was the victim of a killer on a scooter or motorbike.
Police said they had not established any formal link between the attacks, but that the calibre of gun used in Toulouse matched the 15 spent cartridges found at the scene in Montauban.
Toulouse police were also among the officers at the scene in Montauban on Friday, suggesting the two inquiries were being carried out in parallel.
Soldiers from the 17th Parachute Engineers were also at the scene, carrying out the grim task of cleaning up after the shooting. Clearly upset and shocked by the events, they said nothing to the press.