A lone gunman armed with grenades opened fire on a square packed with children and Christmas shoppers in the Belgian city of Liege killing four people – including a 17-month-old baby.
Officials named the gunman – who was also killed in circumstances that are not yet clear – as Nordine Amrani, 33, a known criminal who had already had around 20 brushes with the law, a source told AFP.
Amrani, who was released on parole just over a year ago less than halfway through a sentence for firearms and drugs offences, had been summoned by police in the morning but never showed up.
The baby was the latest to succumb, a Liege hospital announced at 10:45 pm (10:45am NZT).
Amrani’s shooting spree, which targeted passers-by near the city’s courthouse with no obvious motive according to officials, also ended the lives of a 15-year-old boy who died instantly and a 17-year-old boy and 75-year-old woman who died later in hospital.
Scores of teenagers emerging from end-of-year exams were on the square awaiting buses home when the attack began.
Home Affairs Minister Joelle Milquet, who broke off European Union talks to dash to Liege, said more than 100 people had been injured in the attack, five of whom were in critical condition in hospital.
Public prosecutor Daniele Reynders was expected to issue a new toll at a 9:00 am Liege press conference Wednesday.
The lunchtime attack sent terrified residents running for their lives, fleeing into churches and shops as the gunman fired on the crowded square.
“We heard two huge deafening noises and then lots of explosions, people were running everywhere,” a baker named only as Patricia said on RTL-TV.
“We closed the door, turned off the lights and hid behind the counter with the customers.”
The crisis centre, commenting on possible motives, would only confirm the attack was not linked to any ongoing criminal investigation.
“It’s very difficult to determine the reasons for the attack, but we’re investigating all avenues,” Ramacker said.
King Albert II and Queen Paola also rushed to the scene, as did newly named Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who said: “The entire country feels the pain.”
The prime ministers of neighbouring Britain and Luxembourg also expressed condolences.
“It’s uncertain yet whether he (Amrani) killed himself or whether his weapons exploded,” public prosecutor Reynders said.
“He left his home this morning with his backpack and his arms,” she said, adding that he had climbed onto the roof of a bakery shop “and fired and then threw three grenades.”
Hours later groups of people sat weeping on sidewalks amid the wail of ambulance sirens and the roar of helicopters overhead. There were pools of blood on the streets.
The shooting took place around noon in Saint-Lambert Square, home to the courthouse and located near a busy Christmas market in the town of 196,000 people.
Some initial reports said the attack was a foiled bid to rescue a suspect from the courthouse.
Amrani was sentenced in 2008 to almost five years behind bars for illegal possession of arms and growing cannabis, a year after Liege police discovered rocket launchers, an AK-47 rifle and pump-action shotguns among a cache of arms.
He was freed on parole in October 2010.
Reynders said that although the gunman had a record for drug dealing, arms possession and holding stolen goods, there had never been a sign he was unbalanced in any way.
There was much initial confusion over the shooting as events unfolded, with initial reports of more than one gunman.
Journalist Nicolas Gilenne told AFP he had just left the courthouse where he was covering a trial when the attack began.
“I saw a man wave his arm and throw something at the bus shelter. I heard an explosion. He turned around, picked something else up, and pulled the pin. I started to run. He was alone and seemed very much in control.
“He wanted to hurt as many people as possible. I heard four explosions and shots during about 10 seconds.”
Residents had earlier told local television that shots were fired across the square by gunmen posted on the rooftop of a bakery and grenades hurled at bus shelters and into the courthouse.
“Luckily the mayor had postponed the opening of the Christmas market due to bad weather and high winds. Otherwise, many more would have died,” said a town hall employee contacted by AFP.
An AFP correspondent said a minute’s silence and vigil in the town was being organised for lunchtime on Wednesday.