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French police try to catch attack suspect dead or alive

French police officers patrol in the streets of Strasbourg following an attack killing three persons and wounding at least 13, in Strasbourg, eastern France, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

STRASBOURG, France (AP) — French security forces are trying to catch the suspected Strasbourg gunman dead or alive Thursday, as the city in eastern France mourned with flowers and lit candles left at the site of the attack near its famous Christmas market.

More than 700 officers are involved in the manhunt for 29-year-old Cherif Chekatt, who had a long criminal record and had been flagged for extremism, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told CNews television.

Asked about instructions given to police forces searching for Chekatt, Griveaux said the focus was on catching the suspect "as soon as possible," no matter whether he was dead or alive, and "put an end to the manhunt."

Chekatt allegedly shouted "God is great!" in Arabic and sprayed gunfire during Tuesday's rampage near Strasbourg's Christmas market. Local authorities increased Thursday the death toll to three. The attack wounded 13 others, including five in serious condition, the prefecture of the Strasbourg region said.

Prosecutors have opened a terror investigation into the attack.

Police have distributed a photo of Chekatt, who was wounded in an exchange of fire with security forces, with the warning: "Individual dangerous, above all do not intervene."

France raised its three-stage threat index to the highest level and deployed 1,800 additional soldiers across France to help patrol streets and secure crowded events.

Griveaux also called on the "yellow vest" protesters not to take to the streets. Some members of the movement have planned a fifth round of demonstrations on Saturday across France to demand tax relief.

The usually busy streets of Strasbourg were eerily empty on Thursday morning, with a heavy police and military presence. The Christmas market was closed at least through Thursday, authorities said.

Some lit candles and brought flowers to a makeshift memorial at the site of the attack.

"You can feel a very heavy atmosphere due all these events," said resident Lucille Romance. "People are in a state of shock and are avoiding getting out of their house."

The dead included a Thai tourist, 45-year-old Anupong Suebsamarn, according to the Thai Foreign Ministry.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said one Italian was among the wounded, in critical condition. The Europhonica radio consortium said Antonio Megalizzi, 28, was in Strasbourg to follow the session of the European Parliament.

French authorities said that the suspect, born in Strasbourg, had run-ins with police starting at age 10 and his first conviction was at age 13.

Chekatt had been convicted 27 times, mostly in France but also in Switzerland and Germany, for crimes including armed robbery. He had been flagged for extremism and was on a watch list.

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Elaine Ganley in Paris and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed to this story.

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