Gunman killed by police after storming German cinema

Benoit Toussaint
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A policeman stands near a cinema where an armed man barricaded himself in Viernheim, southern Germany, on June 23, 2016

A policeman stands near a cinema where an armed man barricaded himself in Viernheim, southern Germany, on June 23, 2016 (AFP Photo/Daniel Roland)

Viernheim (Germany) (AFP) - A masked gunman barricaded himself in a German multiplex cinema with dozens of people Thursday before being killed by police on high security alert following a string of attacks around Europe, officials said.

No-one else was injured at the complex in the western town of Viernheim, 75 kilometres (50 miles) south of Frankfurt, the interior minister of Hesse state, Peter Beuth, said.

"The assailant moved through the cinema complex... and appeared confused," he said.

"There were hostages inside and there was a struggle (with police) until in the end he was dead."

Beuth added: "We have no information that anyone (among the cinema-goers) was injured."

Security sources quoted by German news agency DPA said there was "no link to terrorism", after deadly attacks in cities including Paris, Brussels and Istanbul that have left European authorities on edge.

A police spokesman said the attacker was seen carrying a bag.

Access to the cinema was sealed off for several hours as police searched for possible explosives but the local Mannheimer Morgen newspaper quoted the police later as saying no explosives were found.

Initial reports had spoken of shots fired and dozens of injured people as the police dispatched heavily armed elite units to the site, equipped with helmets and bulletproof vests.

"There was an acute threat situation," Viernheim police said in a statement.

The reported injuries later appeared to refer to the short-lived choking sensation induced by the police use of tear gas.

- 'Ammunition belt' -

Authorities said they had no information on the man's identity or motive. Media reports said the gunman was seen entering the building with "an ammunition belt" draped over his shoulder.

A spokeswoman for the police in nearby Darmstadt said they were investigating what type of weapon the assailant used, adding that it was possible it fired blanks.

Huri Blakaj, 21, was behind the counter in the ticket office when he saw the man, whom he described as small and youthful-looking, heading towards him. Blakaj hit a panic button located under the cash register.

"He pointed his gun at me," said a visibly shaken Blakaj.

The assailant, who spoke in German without a distinguishable accent, told the other cashiers to lie on the ground while ordering Blakaj to close the door to the building. When Blakaj asked him whether he wanted money, the man replied "no", he recounted.

Shortly afterwards, Blakaj said, he heard a volley of gunfire that lasted "around 20 seconds".

Beuth, Hesse's interior minister, said: "We received a call at 2:45 pm (1245 GMT) saying that a man had stormed" the cinema.

"Four gunshots were reported," he added.

"I called the police and told them to come immediately," the cinema manager told Bild daily without giving her name.

Around three hours after the incident began, police began leaving the scene.

Mass shootings are relatively rare in Germany where gun ownership is prevalent but firearm sales and storage are subject to strict regulation.

In the worse case in recent years, 17-year-old Tim Kretschmer went on a rampage with his father's gun at his former school in 2009, killing 15 people before turning the weapon on himself.