Scooter-rider shoots 3 French soldiers
Montauban - A gunman riding a scooter shot dead three French soldiers in a hail of bullets on a shopping street in the southwestern city of Montauban on Thursday, officials said.
The motive was not immediately clear but officials said they believed the shooter had acted alone and described the attack as a "criminal act".
It followed a similar shooting on Sunday in the nearby city of Toulouse when an off-duty soldier was shot dead by an assailant on a motorcycle.
The defence ministry said the three soldiers, from the locally based 17th Parachute Engineering Regiment (RGP), were aged 28, 26 and 24. One had been taken to hospital in critical condition before dying from his wounds.
In a statement, Defence Minister Gerard Longuet expressed his "deep sadness following the shooting death of three soldiers".
"The defence ministry is confident that the justice system, under the authority of French prosecutors, will be able to shed all light on this criminal act as quickly as possible," he said.
A local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shooting took place around 14:10 local time (13:10 GMT) on a street not far from the base housing the regiment, which has recently served in Afghanistan.
The official said the gunman, wearing a helmet with visor, fired on the three uniformed soldiers on a street near businesses, shops and a bank branch, then drove off at speed.
Investigators found 15 spent cartridges at the scene, police said.
The official told AFP it was not clear if the victims were withdrawing money from the bank, but a television news report of the incident said that one of them had.
Authorities launched an extensive search for the gunman involving a large number of police and national gendarmes, the official said.
The similar shooting on Sunday saw a 30-year-old soldier shot dead by an assailant on a motorcycle in a residential area of Toulouse, 46km south of Montauban.
Prosecutors said they were considering a number of possibilities in that shooting, in which the victim was an off-duty NCO from the 1st Parachute Logistics Regiment, including that it was the result of a personal dispute.
But police refused to say whether or not they believed there was a link between the two shootings.
Thursday's victims were from a 1 000-strong unit of sappers specialised in mine and explosives clearance, breaching fortifications and urban warfare.
In recent years the 17th RGP has often been deployed on operations in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Balkans. It was founded in 1946 and fought in colonial wars in South East Asia and participated in UN missions in Korea.
In is headquartered in Montauban in southwest France, a region which is home to all of France's elite airborne units.
France still has more than 3 000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission fighting the Taliban.