COPENHAGEN (AFP) - Two people have been killed and five injured in twin shootings in the Danish capital, with one attack targeting a cultural centre hosting a debate on Islam and free speech, and the other near the city's main synagogue.
A gunman sprayed bullets at the Krudttonden cultural centre on Saturday as it hosted a seminar in which Lars Vilks – the Swedish artist whose controversial Prophet Mohammed cartoon sparked worldwide protests in 2007 – was among the speakers. One man was killed and three police officers injured.
Hours later, an attacker opened fire near Copenhagen’s main synagogue in the city centre. One man was killed and two policemen wounded in the shooting at around 1.00am local time on Sunday, police said.
Police did not have enough information to confirm whether the two shootings, which come just weeks after a series of bloody Islamist attacks in Paris that left 17 people dead, were linked.
A huge manhunt operation was underway in Denmark overnight after the attackers fled following both shootings. Helicopters were heard whirring over the capital in the early hours.
Danish Prime Minister Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt described the assault on the cultural centre as “a terrorist attack", while the United States branded it “deplorable”.
Tight security in Copenhagen
Police spokesman Allan Teddy Wadsworth-Hansen declined to say whether detectives were looking for the same gunman for both attacks.
“We simply don’t know that and it’s too early to comment on at the moment,” he told a press conference early Sunday. “There have been two incidents and we are searching for two perpetrators.”
He confirmed however that the person killed in the second incident was immediately outside the synagogue.
Danish police released a photo of the suspect in the cultural centre attack, describing him as 25-30 years old and around 185cm tall, with an athletic build. He is seen wearing a dark anorak and a maroon hat and carrying a black bag.
Police said the gunman who fled the scene of the second shooting had been wearing black trousers, black shoes and a light grey jacket with “multi-coloured” parts.
The central area that is home to both Copenhagen’s main synagogue and Noerreport station, the country’s busiest rail hub, had been cordoned off by police carrying machine guns. People living in the area were turned away.
Wadsworth-Hansen said police appeared to have been the target of the second shooting, which was metres from the synagogue.
“It started with police being down at the site. A person comes up and starts to shoot,” he told reporters.
Swedish security services told AFP after the first shooting that they were on alert for any attempt by the suspect to cross the bridge that links Denmark with Sweden.
Spectre of Charlie Hebdo attack
The windows of the cultural centre were pock-marked by multiple bullet holes, and the BBC released a chilling audio recording of the moment a speaker at the event was interrupted by a volley of gunshots. France’s ambassador to Denmark Francois Zimeray, who was present at the debate but was not hurt, told AFP the shooting was an attempt to replicate the January 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris which killed 12 people.
“They shot from the outside (and) had the same intention as Charlie Hebdo, only they didn’t manage to get in,” he said by telephone from the venue. “Intuitively I would say there were at least 50 gunshots, and the police here are saying 200,” he said. “Bullets went through the doors and everyone threw themselves to the floor.”
- ‘Terrorist act’ -
Police initially said two suspects had fled the cultural centre in a Volkswagen Polo. The car was found abandoned around two hours after the attack. After witness statements indicated there was just one attacker, police later said they were hunting for a lone gunman for the cultural centre assault.
“Everything leads us to believe that the shooting was a political attack and therefore a terrorist act,” the Danish premier said in a statement.
The shootings come at a time of heightened security and rising fears of Islamist violence, after gunmen launched the worst attack in half a century on the streets of Paris last month. Anti-terror sweeps carried out across Europe since mid-January have resulted in the arrests of dozens of suspected jihadists and seizures of large stocks of weapons and explosives.
‘We’re all Danish tonight’
French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo raised the ire of Islamist extremists by publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed and periodically satirising Islam. Swedish artist Vilks has been living under police protection after his controversial cartoons prompted death threats.
Fears of attacks targeting symbols of freedom of speech and the press have been growing since the Charlie Hebdo assault, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire told AFP after the assault on the Copenhagen debate.
“It’s something that we feared after Charlie Hebdo,” Deloire said. “Ultra-radical groups are leading a war against freedom of expression, against the freedom to be irreverent about religion and against the simple freedom to debate them.”
Charlie Hebdo columnist Patrick Pelloux voiced dismay over the attack at the cultural centre, saying: “We are all Danish tonight.” Pelloux urged artists not to succumb to self-censorship out of fear, telling AFP: “We must stand firm and not be afraid.”
French President Francois Hollande contacted Denmark’s Thorning-Schmidt to express his country’s “solidarity in this ordeal", according to a presidential statement.