ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
TOULOUSE, France — A motorcycle assailant opened fire with two handguns Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two young sons and a schoolgirl. One of the guns had also been used in other deadly motorcycle attacks in the area, officials said.
Authorities ordered increased security at schools and synagogues around the country after an attack that revolted France, where school shootings and deadly attacks on Jews are extremely rare. The third motorcycle-based slaying in the area in a week, it produced high-level uproar in Israel and drew condemnation from the U.S. government.
French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links but the motive for all three attacks was unclear. Still, religious minorities and issues of race have emerged as prominent issues in France’s current presidential campaign.
News that the gun was used in attacks last week around Toulouse fueled suspicions that a serial killer is targeting French minorities, and not only Jews. The dead and injured in the earlier attacks were paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin.
In all three cases, the attacker came on a motorcycle, apparently alone, and then sped away.
France, which has seen a low drumroll of anti-Semitic incidents, is particularly sensitive toward the Jewish community because of its World War II past of abetting Nazi occupiers in deporting Jewish citizens.
A police official said the same powerful .45-caliber handgun used Monday at a school in Toulouse was used in shootings four days ago that killed two paratroopers and seriously injured another in nearby Montauban, and in an attack that killed a paratrooper eight days ago in Toulouse.
In Monday’s attack, the killer also used a .35-caliber gun, the police official said. At least 15 shots were fired at the school in a residential neighborhood in northeastern Toulouse, the official said. The official, based in Paris, was not authorized to speak publicly.
A 30-year-old rabbi and his 3-year-old and 6-year-old sons were killed Monday just before classes started at the Ozar Hatorah school, a junior high and high school in a quiet residential neighborhood, Toulouse Prosecutor Michel Valet said.
Another child, the 8-year-old daughter of the school principal, was also killed, school officials said. Valet said a 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded and in the operating ward of a city hospital.
“He shot at everything he had in front of him, children and adults,” Valet said. “The children were chased inside the school.”
The slain rabbi was Johnathan Sandler, who taught Yiddish at the school, according to another teacher, Uriel Torjmane. Sandler arrived here from Jerusalem last September with his wife and children, according to Zionist activist Charlotte Elbaz. The embassy said Sandler and his sons had duel French-Israeli citizenship.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Toulouse to visit the school with Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.
“This is a day of national tragedy because children were killed in cold blood,” Sarkozy said, denouncing “the savagery” of the attack and vowing to track down the killer or killers.
“Barbarity, savagery, cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win,” Sarkozy said. “We will find him.”
Sarkozy ordered increased security at Jewish and Muslim buildings around Toulouse, while his prime minister told officials to “secure” all school and religious buildings in the entire country.
Sarkozy’s challengers for the presidential vote in April and May also rushed to the scene.
France has the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, estimated at about 500,000, as well as its largest Muslim population, about 5 million.
Toulouse, a southwestern city north of the Pyrenees, 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.
The school targeted Monday, behind a high white wall with few external markings, was cordoned off by police, who then escorted other children out as forensics experts combed the scene. Six bullet holes circled an aluminum fence that surrounds the school.
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. Students and parents hugged each other, sobbing.
A video camera was visible at the school’s entrance.
“The drama occurred a bit before 8 a.m. A man arrived in front of the school on a motorcycle or scooter,” Valet said, adding that the man got off his scooter outside the school and opened fire.
“Everything leads one to believe that these were racist and anti-Semitic acts,” Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen said on BFM-TV.
Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told The Associated Press that the suspect made his getaway on a dark-colored scooter — just as the assailant or assailants did in the two shootings last week.
On March 10, a gunman on a motorbike shot and killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. Last Thursday, a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at a bank machine in Montauban, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Toulouse, killing two and critically wounding the other.
A man who lives near the school said he spoke with the slain rabbi just before he was 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.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense 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.
The U.S. government said it joined France in condemning this unprovoked and outrageous act of violence in the strongest possible terms.”
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
Paris police said Monday they are also investigating threats against two synagogues in Paris from last week. A police official said there was no apparent link between those threats and Monday’s shooting.
Special prayers were being offered Monday at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and a minute of silence in all French schools was to be held Tuesday. A carnival in Toulouse was canceled and vigils were planned in Toulouse and Paris to honor the victims.