Gunman Kills 4 Outside Jewish School In France

Police officers gather evidence at the site of a shooting in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19. (AP)
Police officers gather evidence at the site of a shooting in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19. (AP)

A motorcycle gunman opened fire Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two young sons and a schoolgirl, the prosecutor's office said. It was the third deadly motorcycle shooting in the same area in recent days.

French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links but the motive for the attack was unclear. The attack shocked the country and prompted strong emotions and high-level discussions in Israel.

Concerns emerged about a possible serial killer with racist motivations, as investigators examined whether the attack was linked to two other shooting attacks in the Toulouse region that killed three French paratroopers and left another seriously injured.

Religious minorities and issues of race have emerged as a prominent issue in France's current presidential campaign. The paratroopers killed and injured were of North African and French Caribbean origin, and the targets Monday were Jewish.

President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to the school, denouncing "the savagery" of the attack and vowing to track down the killer or killers.

"We will find him," he said.

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.

In each of the three attacks, the same large caliber bullet - 11.43 - was used, a police official said. He was not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.

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.

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 police combed the scene.

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. 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.

The Paris prosecutor's office said it will investigate eventual terrorist links to Monday's killing and the two killings of paratroopers last week.

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."

Sarkozy visited the school accompanied by Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.

"It's a day of national tragedy," Sarkozy said. "The barbary, the savagery, the cruelty cannot win. Hate cannot win. The nation is much stronger."

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.

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.

This article was originally published on March 19, 2012.


More from WBUR

Listen Live