NICE, France—A 26-year-old small-time drug dealer apparently known to police was killed by an elite French counterterrorism unit Friday afternoon after he shot at four military policemen and then took hostages in a supermarket in the southwestern town of Trèbes.
Four people are dead —two killed inside the store by the gunman, one shot dead in an earlier carjacking involving the suspect and a hero policeman who let himself be swapped into the store in exchange for the release of a hostage during the tense standoff.
Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, 45, died of his injuries Saturday morning, French officials said.
"France will never forget his heroism, his bravery, his sacrifice,” French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said of Lt. Col. Beltrame, on Twitter.
Beltrame was key to the resolution of the standoff: He left his cellphone on the table, letting those outside hear what was happening. Police outside heard the shots and decided to go in immediately, and shot the suspect.
Authorities identified the gunman as Redouane Lakdim.
“People never thought anything could happen like this in such a small town but unfortunately the threat is everywhere,” Collomb said at a press conference, less than an hour after the incident ended.
“But fortunately the gendarmerie came in, saving us from a massacre. It means the terrorist risk is still very high in France.”
The gunman was shot dead just before 3 p.m., ending four hours of panic and hysteria in this sleepy town of less than 6,000 people in southwest France.
Collomb said Lakdim was a lone wolf who may have served time for petty offenses and may have been radicalized, but was not considered part of any cell. He was known to frequent Salafist sites online.
The incident began at around 10:30 a.m. in Carcassone. The suspect apparently hijacked a car, injuring the driver and killing a passenger.
“They shut down the entire walled city of Carcassone and it was impossible to see what was going on,” a woman named Madeleine told CNN. “It was crazy and now it’s totally deserted, not a soul in sight. Everyone evacuated.”
The gunman then tried to run over four military policemen from Marseilles who were out jogging. He also shot at one of them, wounding him in the shoulder. He then drove to the supermarket 20 minutes away in Trèbes, where he seized hostages.
“Everything suggests this was a terror attack,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the media from Brussels.
The suspect, who was reportedly heavily armed, apparently released some of the hostages and was barricaded in the store with one police officer before he was shot dead.
Earlier, BFM-TV reported that a witness told them the suspect had called himself a “soldier of the Islamic State.” According to the report, the suspect demanded the release of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the terrorist cell that attacked Paris in 2015 and killed 130 people.
The same gunman was involved in both incidents, said Yves Lefebvre, secretary general of the SGP Police-FO union.
Paris counterterrorism officials took over the investigation and are calling it a terrorist attack.
Before he got to Trèbes, Collomb tweeted that he was on his way there and wrote “Avoid the area and stay tuned to the instructions from authorities.”
The news had an electrifying effect instantly on the rest of France, with police flooding cities like Nice in its southeast.
Trèbes is about an hour southeast of Toulouse, where Mohamed Merah, 23, killed six people and wounded a teacher at a Jewish school in 2012.
A Marseille detective told The Daily Beast that the area around Toulouse is known for being heavily networked with French ISIS fighters who have returned to France from the Middle East over the past 12 months.
Last year, about 180 French nationals returned to France from Syria and officials have said said they are a potential danger to the country.