By Antony Paone | Reuters
LE HAVRE, France – A gunman took six people hostage in a bank in northern France on Thursday and was still holding two by late evening, police sources and media said.
The hostage-taker was believed to have Islamist sympathies, two police union officials said.
An elite police tactical unit was at the scene in the port of Le Havre, police said, and a bomb disposal squad had also been deployed, according to one of the union officials.
French broadcaster BFMTV reported that a police negotiator had made contact with the assailant.
The 34-year-old man with a history of mental health problems was armed with a handgun and initially took six people, a national police representative told Reuters.
But four were subsequently released, according to French media and Denis Jacob of the Alternative police trade union.
Militant attacks have shaken France in recent years, with four police officers killed in an October 2019 knife rampage in Paris and 130 people killed by coordinated bombings and shootings in the capital in November 2015.
Yves Lefebvre, head of another police union, SGP Unite, said the hostage-taker in Le Havre, a town of around 170,000 people on the English channel, was known to law enforcement authorities and on a security service watch list.
“We know that he has been radicalized and suffers a serious psychiatric illness,” he said.
Another source, a senior police official, said the man had spoken in support of the Palestinian cause. He had requested a motor scooter plus access to social media, the official added.
Police cordoned off the area round the bank, on Boulevard de Strasbourg, a wide thoroughfare in the center of Le Havre with a tramline running down the middle.
An employee at a Burger King outlet about 100 yards away bank said police had told them to lock an entrance on the same street as the hostage-taking but not ordered them to shut.
The hostages were seized in a branch of Bred bank, a mid-sized lender, media reported. The branch is on the ground floor of a six-story residential building.