French gendarmes patrol in the streets of the city of Strasbourg, eastern France on Wednesday, following a shooting. A man who had been flagged as a possible extremist sprayed gunfire near the city of Strasbourg's famous Christmas market Tuesday, killing three people, wounding 12 and sparking a massive manhunt. France immediately raised its terror alert level. Credit: Christophe Ena | AP

STRASBOURG, France — French police are still searching for the man who shot up the country’s largest Christmas market and admit they attempted to arrest him ahead of the attack, a top security official said Wednesday.

Speaking to French radio, Secretary of State Laurent Nunez of the Interior Ministry said the suspect was not at home when police went to detain him Tuesday morning over criminal charges.

“I confirm that an operation was organized yesterday morning to arrest him,” he said, adding that the suspect was known to security services and became radicalized during one of his many stints in prison. He was released from French prison in 2015 but appears to have previously served time in German prison as well.

The 29-year-old French suspect sprayed gunfire into the Strasbourg Christmas market, one of the largest in France. He killed three people and wounded 13, eight of whom are in critical condition.

He then exchanged fire with police and soldiers protecting the market, wounding one soldier lightly and getting shot in the hand himself. He commandeered a taxi and fled the scene. The taxi driver later went to police, described the man as armed and wounded and told them where he dropped him off, according to Le Monde newspaper. Nunez said it is possible he has fled the country.

Some 350 members of security forces are on the scene in Strasbourg, a city on the German border that is also one of the homes of the European Parliament, which was in session at the time of the shooting. Five people have been detained for questioning.

The lockdown around the city has now been lifted and schools are open on Wednesday, but the country remains on high alert, with border controls tightened and extra security at the other Christmas markets around France.

Local police said the assailant crossed the Corbeau Bridge, entering the area of the Christmas market, before opening fire on the Rue des Orfevres closer to the center.

Witnesses interviewed on French TV described two hails of bullets in the frigid Strasbourg night, about 8 p.m. One restaurant owner said he heard the shooting, ran in front of his establishment and saw a body lying outside on the ground. Many shops in the city center closed their doors and hid their frightened customers inside.

Europe has a centuries-old tradition of Christmas markets in the weeks ahead of the holiday, where revelers can drink mulled wine, listen to carolers and shop for gifts in a bid to cheer up the long nights on the continent. In recent years, the markets have become targets for terrorism, both because they draw crowds and because they have ties to religion.

Strasbourg, in particular, has been a high-profile target. In 2000, al-Qaida-linked operatives planned to target the Strasbourg Cathedral and Christmas market on New Year’s Eve, a plan intercepted by German and French authorities. Fourteen people were later convicted of participating in the terrorist plot in both French and German courts.

In 2016, 12 people were killed at a Berlin market when a truck plowed through a crowd. That year, several arrests were made in November in Strasbourg, and city authorities threatened to cancel the market if it received serious threats.

Although France has been on high alert since terrorist attacks in November 2015, before Tuesday there had been no significant attacks in 2018. Headlines have been dominated by political protests instead, some of them violent, as yellow-vested activists have taken to the streets to contest President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.

Nunez said all protests would be banned for now in Strasbourg but could go ahead elsewhere in the country.

Washington Post writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report.