A lone gunman murdered a rabbi, his two small sons and another child outside a Jewish school in France today.
The attack in Toulouse by a man who escaped on a scooter was at least the third such deadly shooting in France in a week, prompting fears a serial killer was on the loose.
The latest killings shocked the country and prompted high-level discussions in Israel. French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links, but the motive for the latest attack was unclear.
Investigators were trying to discover if the shootings were linked to two others in the Toulouse region last week that killed three French Arab paratroopers and left another seriously injured.
President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to the school, ordering increased security at Jewish and Muslim buildings around Toulouse, while his prime minister ordered officials to “secure” all school and religious buildings in France.
The 30-year-old rabbi, his three-year-old and six-year-old sons and another child aged around nine were shot just before classes started at the Ozar Hatorah school, a junior and high school in a quiet residential district.
Toulouse prosecutor Michel Valet said: “He shot at everything he had in front of him, children and adults. The children were chased inside the school.”
A man who lives near the school said he spoke with the rabbi just before he was shot and killed.
“I said ”Bonjour“ to him like normal,” said the 29-year-old, asking to be identified only by his first name Baroukh.
“Then he went out into the school entrance. I heard the shots and I turned around and saw him on the ground. He looked dead. But I didn’t have much time to see who did it because I panicked and started running away.”
Mr Sarkozy denounced “the savagery” of the attack and vowed to find the killer or killers. “We will find him,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said the killer fled on a dark-coloured scooter – just as the assailant or assailants did in the two shootings last week.
The school, behind a high white wall with few external markings, was cordoned off by police, who escorted other children out as forensics teams combed the scene.
One officer held a distraught girl, her face in her hands. A mother and son wearing a yarmulke walked away from the site, their faces visibly pained. A video camera was visible at the school’s entrance.
Mr Valet said the gunman probably used two weapons, including one of a large calibre.
On March 10, a gunman on a scooter shot and killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. Last Thursday, a gunman on a scooter opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at a bank machine in Montauban, about 30 miles from Toulouse, killing two and critically wounding the other.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said it will investigate eventual terrorist links to the killings.
France has the largest Jewish community in western Europe, estimated at about 500,000. France also has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, about five million.
The prosecutor said there were similarities with the attack four days ago in Montauban and in Toulouse eight days ago.
“It is too early to establish a sure link” between Monday’s shooting and those of the paratroopers last week, he said. “But there are elements that justify asking very serious questions.”
Forensic analysis showed the same weapon was used in the shootings in Montauban and Toulouse.
Mr Sarkozy visited the school accompanied by Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.
“It’s a day of national tragedy,” Mr Sarkozy said. “The barbary, the savagery, the cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. The nation is much stronger.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “whether it was a terror attack or a hate crime, the loss of life is unacceptable.”
Einat Wilf, an Israeli legislator from the Independence Party, said legislators were being briefed on the shooting.
Special prayers were being offered at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.