By Laurent Lozano and Alex Peyrille / AFP
TOULOUSE: France launched a massive manhunt for a serial killer on Tuesday, as the nation’s schools observed a minute of silence for the three Jewish children and the teacher he gunned down.
President Nicolas Sarkozy paid silent homage to the victims at a school in Paris close to a Holocaust memorial, while his Socialist rival for the presidency, Francois Hollande, paid tribute at a school in the suburbs.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant admitted police do not know the identity of the cold-blooded killer who shot the four people on Monday at a school in Toulouse and who murdered three soldiers last week in the same region.
But he said the shooter may have recorded his crime at the Toulouse school with a sports video camera he wore strapped to his chest and that he could be planning to put the grim footage on the Internet.
“A witness saw a small video camera around the killer’s neck,” the minister told Europe 1 radio.
Gueant said later during a tour of Toulouse to check security arrangements in the southwestern city that the clue would bolster what little information police are thought to have about the killer.
He appears to be “someone who is very cold, very determined, very in control of himself, very cruel.”
French police have been scouring the Internet for possible images from the killer, but Gueant said no trace had been found by Tuesday morning.
The minister said thousands of identity checks had already been carried out and hundreds of police reinforcements deployed.
He also confirmed media reports that police were probing three soldiers formerly based in Montauban — the scene of one of the attacks — who were kicked out of the army in 2008 after being photographed making Nazi salutes.
Police are particularly concerned that the killer might strike again, having carried out three attacks at precise four day intervals.
The first target was an off-duty paratrooper of North African origin, shot dead in Toulouse on March 11.
Four days later the killer shot dead two more soldiers of North African origin in the nearby garrison town of Montauban, also seriously wounding a soldier from the Caribbean.
He made his escape from all three attacks on a scooter.
French authorities have stepped up security at Jewish and Muslim
schools following Monday’s bloody assault on the Ozar Hatorah school, and Sarkozy declared a maximum “scarlet” terror alert on the Midi-Pyrenees region.
“In attacking children and a Jewish teacher, the anti-Semitic motive of the attack appears to be obvious,” Sarkozy said in a nationally televised address after he returned to Paris from the scene of the shooting.
The dead were identified as 30-year-old Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, as well as seven-year-old girl Miriam Monsonego. The three children were Franco-Israeli citizens.
Witnesses said Sandler died trying to shield his sons, and that the gunman had chased Miriam, the daughter of the school head, into the school before grabbing her and shooting her in the head.
Yaacov Monsonego was praying in the school synagogue when another young pupil brought him the body of his slain daughter, witnesses said.
A fifth victim, a 17-year-old boy, was badly wounded, but local community leaders said he was expected to survive.
The killer wore a full face helmet and appeared calm and collected, carefully parking his scooter before opening fire, witnesses said.
The bodies of the four victims of Monday’s shooting were to be flown to Israel later Tuesday, a Jewish community body said. The Israeli embassy in Paris said they would be buried on Wednesday.
Israeli media warned of the growing specter of anti-Semitism in Europe, with the Jerusalem Post saying that, since 2000, France’s Jewish community had been “exposed to the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence since the Holocaust.”
Campaigning in France’s presidential elections was effectively suspended — with just a month to go before the first round of polling — but both the right-wing incumbent and Hollande rushed to Toulouse Monday to pay their respects.
The scarlet alert gives authorities widespread powers to disrupt daily life and implement sweeping security measures, including potentially closing rail terminals and airports or even halting water supplies.
Mixed police and military patrols can be ordered. It is the last step in a scale of terror alerts before a formal state of emergency.