COPENHAGEN – A gunman opened fire on a Copenhagen cultural centre, killing one man and wounding three police officers in what authorities called a terror attack against a free speech event featuring an artist who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.
After searching for the gunman for hours, police reported another shooting near a synagogue in downtown Copenhagen after midnight Sunday. One person was shot in the head and two police officers were shot in the arms and legs, police said, adding it wasnâ€™t clear whether the two incidents were linked. The gunman fled on foot.
Sebastian Zepeda, a 19-year-old visitor from London, said he didnâ€™t want to leave his hotel room after hearing of the first shooting and was text messaging with his mother when the second shooting happened on the street below.
â€œI was on my bed and I heard gunshots. And my heart raced,â€ Zepeda said. â€œAll of a sudden the road was packed with police.â€
The earlier shooting came a month after extremists killed 12 people at a satirical newspaper in Paris that had sparked Muslim outrage with its depictions of Muhammad.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the first shooting, which took place shortly before 4pm Saturday. Danish police said the gunman used an automatic weapon to shoot through the windows of the Krudttoenden cultural centre, which TV footage showed were riddled with bullet holes. The gunman then fled in a carjacked Volkswagen Polo that was found later a few kilometres (miles) away, police said.
They said the victim was a man about 40 who was inside the cultural centre. He has not yet been identified. Two of the wounded officers belonged to the Danish security service PET, which said the circumstances surrounding the shooting â€œindicate that we are talking about a terror attack.â€
Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who has faced numerous death threats for caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, was one of the main speakers at Saturdayâ€™s panel discussion, titled â€œArt, blasphemy and freedom of expression.â€ He was whisked away by his bodyguards unharmed as the shooting began.
Vilks, 68, later told The Associated Press he believed he was the intended target of the shooting.
â€œWhat other motive could there be? Itâ€™s possible it was inspired by Charlie Hebdo,â€ he said, referring to the Jan. 7 attack by Islamic extremists on the French newspaper.
â€œAt first there was panic. People crawled down under tables,â€ Vilks said. â€œMy bodyguards quickly pulled me away.â€
The cultural center had a lecture hall as well as a cafe. Vilks said no one in the hall was wounded.
â€œWe were well isolated in there. It would have been much worse if this happened during the break, when people walk out,â€ Vilks said.
He said he deplored the death and the injuries but was unfazed as to what it meant for his own safety.
â€œIâ€™m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least,â€ he told AP by phone.
Police initially said there were two gunmen but later said they believed there was only one shooter. They described him as 25 to 30 years old with an athletic build and carrying a black automatic weapon. They released a blurred photograph of the suspect wearing dark clothes and a scarf covering part of his face.
â€œI saw a masked man running past,â€ said Helle Merete Brix, one of the eventâ€™s organizers. â€œI clearly consider this as an attack on Lars Vilks.â€
Niels Ivar Larsen, one of the speakers at the event, told the TV2 channel he heard someone shouting and firing automatic weapons. â€œPolice returned the fire and I hid behind the bar. I felt surreal, like in a movie,â€ Larsen said.
Visiting the scene of the first shooting, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt called it a â€œpolitical attack and therefore an act of terror.â€
Police spokesman Joergen Skov said it was possible the gunman had planned the â€œsame scenarioâ€ as in the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
FranÃ§ois Zimeray, the French ambassador to Denmark who was at the event to speak about the Charlie Hebdo attack, tweeted that he was â€œstill alive.â€ Police said he was not wounded.
French President Francois Hollande called the Copenhagen shooting â€œdeplorableâ€ and said Thorning-Schmidt would have the â€œfull solidarity of France in this trial.â€ French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was arriving Sunday in Copenhagen.
Leaders across Europe condemned the violence and expressed support for Denmark. Swedenâ€™s security service said it was sharing information with its Danish counterpart, while U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said U.S. officials were ready to help with the investigation and have been in touch with their Danish counterparts.
Vilks has faced several attempted attacks and death threats after he depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a dog in 2007. A Pennsylvania woman last year got a 10-year prison term for a plot to kill Vilks. In 2010, two brothers tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden and were imprisoned for attempted arson.
Vilks told the AP after the Paris terror attacks that, due to increased security concerns, even fewer organizations were inviting him to give lectures.
The depiction of the prophet is deemed insulting to many followers of Islam. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad â€” even a respectful one â€” is considered blasphemous.
While many Muslims have expressed disgust at the deadly assault on the Charlie Hebdo employees, many were also deeply offended by its cartoons lampooning Muhammad. – AP