A rabbi, his two young sons and another child were shot dead by a lone gunman outside a French school today in what was feared to be the latest in a string of racist murders.
The killings in Toulouse were carried out with the same heavy calibre .45 automatic pistol that was used in two attacks that murdered three soldiers of North African and Caribbean origin in the region last week.
In all three incidents the lone gunman arrived and escaped on a dark-coloured high-powered scooter.
Rabbi Johnathan Sandler, 30, who had been teaching Yiddish at the Jewish school for seven months, his six and three-year-old sons and another child aged around nine were gunned down at around 8am just before lessons were due to start at Ozar Hatorah school.
The gunman pumped 15 rounds at his helpless targets.
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.”
Religious minorities and issues of race have emerged as a prominent issue in France’s current presidential campaign.
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 the city , killing two and critically wounding the other.
Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen said of today’s shootings: “Everything leads one to believe that these were racist and anti-Semitic acts.”
French president Nicolas Sarkozy flew to the scene and security was immediately stepped up at all French schools and religious buildings.
The killings shocked the country and prompted high-level discussions in Israel.
Mr Sarkozy visited the school accompanied by Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organisations.
“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.”
Mr Sarkozy denounced “the savagery” of the attack and vowed to find the killer or killers. “We will find him,” he said.
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.
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.
Toulouse has about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in its overall population of 440,000, said Jean-Paul Amoyelle, the president of the Ozar Hatorah school network in France. He said the Toulouse Jewish community is well integrated.