(AFP) – At least two people were killed after a gunman claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group opened fire and took hostages at a supermarket in southwest France on Friday, security sources told AFP.
Police were negotiating with the unnamed hostage-taker who remained holed up in the Super U store in the town of Trebes after storming in at around 11.15 am (1015 GMT).
A witness reported that the assailant was armed with knives, a gun and grenades and shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) before going into the supermarket.
A source close to the probe said a Moroccan man had been identified as the hostage-taking suspect.
“Most of the Super U staff and customers managed to get away,” said a security source, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly.
“An officer is currently in contact with the hostage-taker.”
The source said two people had been killed according to a provisional toll, while regional police chief Jean-Valery Lettermann told AFP: “We are unfortunately expecting to discover there are more victims.”
Fifteen minutes before the supermarket incident in Trebes, a policeman was shot in the nearby town of Carcassonne while out jogging with several colleagues.
He was in a stable condition, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.
Police traced the car involved in the shooting in Carcassonne to the hostage-taking in Trebes after it was found in the car park of the supermarket, a security source told AFP.
The shootings come with France still on high alert after a string of jihadist attacks since 2015.
The man “entered the Super U supermarket and shots were heard,” a source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Three helicopters could be seen circling over Trebes, a picturesque medieval town of around 5,000 people, while heavily armed police had closed down roads surrounding the supermarket.
The local prosecutors office were treating the incident as a terror attack and said the gunman had claimed to be acting in the name of IS.
“All the information we currently have leads us to believe it is a terrorist act,” Philippe said while on a visit to Mulhouse in eastern France, cutting short the trip.
A police officer was also in hospital after being shot in a separate incident 15 minutes drive away in the town of Carcassonne a quarter of an hour before the hostage-taking began.
Interior Minister Gerard Collomb was on his way to the scene.
The terror attacks in France started in January 2015 with the assault on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead.
France also suffered major attacks in Paris in November 2015 when IS jihadists killed 130 people in bombings and shootings at bars, restaurants, the Bataclan concert venue and the national stadium.
In July 2016, in another attack claimed by IS, a man drove a truck through revellers celebrating Bastille Day in the Riviera resort of Nice, killing 84 people.
A state of emergency put in place just after the Paris attacks was finally lifted in October last year, but soldiers continue to patrol major tourist sites and transport hubs under an anti-terror mission.
If the link to Islamic State is confirmed, the hostage-taking would be the first deadly attack in France since October, when two young women were stabbed to death outside Marseille s main train station.
The area of southwest France where Friday s shootings took place has been scarred by Islamic extremism before.
In 2012, Mohamed Merah shot dead seven people including three Jewish schoolchildren in nearby Toulouse and Montauban.