Shootings at Jewish school shake France

TOULOUSE, France — A gunman on a motorbike opened fire Monday at a Jewish school, killing a rabbi and his two young sons as they waited for a bus, then chased down a 7-year-old girl, shooting her dead at point-blank range.

It was the latest in a series of attacks on minorities that have raised fears of a racist killer on the loose.

Authorities said the same weapon, a .45-caliber handgun, was used in two other recent shootings in southwestern France, also involving an assailant who fled by motorbike. Those attacks left three people dead — French military paratroopers of North African and Caribbean origin.

The shootings echoed across a nation that has been focused on an upcoming presidential race in which issues about religious minorities and race have gained prominence. President Nicolas Sarkozy — facing a hard re-election battle — raised the terrorism alert level in the region to its highest level, while also noting a possible racist motive.

"This act is despicable, it cannot go unpunished," Sarkozy said in a prime-time address to the nation. "Each time this man acts, he acts to kill, giving his victims no chance."

About 8 a.m. Monday, with more than 100 students and other worshipers inside a synagogue adjoining the Ozar Hatorah school, the gunman coolly got off his motor scooter. He shot at 30-year-old Jonathan Sandler, a rabbi who taught at the school, and his sons, 4-year-old Gabriel and 5-year-old Arieh, while they waited for a bus to a Jewish primary school across town.

Panicked students darted inside the school grounds and the attacker chased them, witnesses said. At one point, he grabbed the principal's 7-year-old daughter, Miriam Monsonego, by her hair, shot her in the head and fled.

Nicole Yardeni, a local Jewish official who saw security video of the attack, described the shooter as "determined, athletic and well-toned." She said he wore a helmet with the visor down.

Toulouse prosecutor Michel Valet said a 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded.

All of the victims held dual Israeli and French citizenship, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said. By 8 p.m., as a dozen police blocked access to the school, cries again echoed from within as community members mourned over the victims' bodies before they were to be flown to Israel for burial.

The attack revolted France, where school shootings are extremely rare, and drew strong condemnation from Israel and the United States.

France has suffered bouts of criminal anti-Semitism over the years, often targeting synagogues or Jewish cemeteries. Monday's slayings were the deadliest to target a Jewish site since Palestinian militants shot and killed six people in the popular Chez Jo Goldenberg deli in Paris' Marais district in 1982.

Officials in France have been particularly sensitive toward the Jewish community because of the country's World War II past of abetting Nazi occupiers in deporting Jewish citizens.

Sarkozy and his main challenger, Socialist Francois Hollande, rushed to pay their respects in Toulouse. In Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral hosted a special Mass to honor the dead.

On Monday evening, more than 1,000 people packed a synagogue in central Paris for a memorial service that was attended by Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

In France's increasingly tense and raucous race to the presidency, the subject of immigration has taken a central role. Critics have accused Sarkozy of taking a hard-line tack on the issue to siphon votes from the far right.

His conservative government was on the defensive on Monday, emphasizing their response since the first shootings on March 11.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant, a close Sarkozy ally, said some 200 investigators have been assigned to the cases, though there were "no clear leads" and it wasn't clear if the assailant was acting alone.

In the wake of the shootings, the New York Police Department stepped up security at synagogues, and U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned an "unprovoked and vicious act of violence" in France.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also condemned the attack. "It's too early to say what the precise background for this act of murder is, but I think that we can't rule out that there was a strong, murderous anti-Semitic motive here," Netanyahu said.

A police official said the same .45-caliber handgun used in Monday's attack was used in the shootings four days earlier that killed two paratroopers and seriously injured a third in nearby Montauban, as well as an attack that killed a paratrooper eight days earlier in Toulouse.

In Monday's attack, the killer also used a .35-caliber gun, firing at least 15 shots at the school, police officials said.

Sarkozy said that Monday's shootings and the earlier paratrooper killings appeared to be motivated by racism.

About the Jewish population of France

500,000 The approximate number of Jewish people in France, the largest Jewish community in Western Europe.

10,000-15,000 The number of Jewish people in Toulouse, one of the largest in France, with an overall population of 440,000, according to Jean-Paul Amoyelle, the president of the Ozar Hatorah school network in France. Toulouse's Jewish community is well-integrated and mainly of North African heritage.

Shootings at Jewish school shake France 03/19/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 1:15am]

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