Eerie quiet in France's bloodied 'Christmas capital'

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Strasbourg (France) (AFP)

Around two million people converge on the postcard-perfect island at the heart of Strasbourg every year for the Christmas market. On Wednesday morning, it was shut and grimly quiet after a shooting spree left three dead.

"There was a knot in my stomach when I went to work this morning. We don't know how this is going to go," said Cathia, a delivery woman who lives just south of the city.

She was at the market when the attack began Tuesday night, sending thousands of people running for safety and prompting a security lockdown of the city known as the "capital of Christmas."

Hundreds hid in bars and restaurants and were finally able to leave under police escort at around 2:00 am (0100 GMT), but the city remained on edge as hundreds of police sought the gunman, a 29-year-old Strasbourg native.

Flags were lowered to half-staff as theatre performances and other shows were cancelled, though schools remained open for parents unable to keep their children at home.

The annual market has become a veritable fortress since 2015, when France suffered jihadist terror strikes that left scores dead and marked the beginning of a wave of attacks.

Access to the island formed by the River Ill is tightly controlled via the nearly 20 bridges connecting it to the rest of the city.

For Christmas, the island becomes home to around 300 wooden chalets warming visitors with mulled wine and sausages, under the dazzling lights of a 30-metre (100-foot) fir tree in Kleber Square.

On Tuesday night, wounded victims could be seen in the streets which are flanked by traditional Alsatian buildings with their exposed wooden beams.

"I'm having a hard time believing what happened here," said Antoine, a 20-year-old medical student in the city of 300,000 people which lies on the border with Germany.

"This is a first for Strasbourg, it's really a peaceful city."

- 'Threat very high' -

The market has long been a prime target, with French authorities foiling a bomb plot as far back as December 2000, when four men suspected of Al Qaeda links were arrested.

Concrete bollards and trenches dug between tramway lines are now a common site, to avoid vehicle attacks like that which struck Berlin's Christmas market in 2012, killing 12.

That attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, which has claimed others in France that have killed more than 245 people since 2015.

"The terror threat remains very high," junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said on November 23 during this year's inauguration of the market.

"Our forces are ready to secure this major event for Strasbourg and France, with lots of visitors from around the world," he said.

The security budget has more than tripled since 2015 to stand at one million euros ($1.13 million).

Around 260 police officers are deployed each day, bolstered by 160 private security agents and 50 municipal police agents.

Dozens of soldiers from France's anti-terror Sentinelle operation, created after the January 2015 massacre at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, also carry out patrols.

It was Sentinelle soldiers alerted by the shots who first engaged with the gunman. He later exchanged fire with other security forces before fleeing in a commandeered taxi.

Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said the market would be closed Wednesday, but even if it reopens in the coming days, a lingering apprehension will likely cast a pall over the Christmas cheer.

"It's hard to imagine what comes next, because we've never been through something like this," said Antoine.