France hunts armed robbers after hostage scare near Paris

Juliette Montesse and Pauline Talagrand
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French police say the gunmen are still on the loose and believed to be inside the Qwartz mall in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, on July 13, 2015

French police say the gunmen are still on the loose and believed to be inside the Qwartz mall in Villeneuve-la-Garenne, on July 13, 2015 (AFP Photo/Thomas Samson)

Villeneuve-la-Garenne (France) (AFP) - French police on Monday were hunting armed robbers who escaped after holding up a store in a shopping mall near Paris, prompting special forces to intervene and seal off the area.

The three men -- one of whom was thought to be an employee of the shop -- burst into the Primark store in Villeneuve-la-Garenne early Monday, said a police source who wished to remain anonymous.

An employee first alerted her boyfriend to the hold-up at around 7:00 am (0500 GMT) when she sent him a text message saying they had been taken hostage by two armed men, another source said.

The area around the Qwartz mall was shut down, all traffic stopped and other stores in the vicinity closed as special forces rushed to the scene.

The mall was promptly evacuated but according to police, 18 employees had remained inside -- some were told to stay put by the gunmen and others had managed to hide on their own.

They "were evacuated around 10:30 am, one of them was unwell but no-one was injured," police said.

But while security forces initially thought the gunmen were still inside the mall, they realised after searching the premises that the men had escaped.

The suspects "appear to have run away, and the search continues outside the mall," a source close to the probe said.

Prosecutors added they did not appear to have fled with any money.

- 'This is a hold-up' -

Memories of attacks in January by Islamic extremists who gunned down 17 people in and near Paris -- including several who were held hostage in a Jewish supermarket -- are still fresh in many minds in France.

France, and the Paris area in particular, remains on high alert with some 7,000 soldiers deployed around the country to help police in countering any further attack.

But so far police have indicated Monday's attack was a common armed robbery.

"I saw two robbers, dressed in black, hooded. They were calm, not in a hurry," said Bruno Jahin, a 20-year-old witness.

"The tallest... had a gun, I think it was a pump-action shotgun. The other man was smaller.

"I heard 'this is a hold-up, you must go' several times... I turned around and took the lift," he said.

"They were definitely looking for money, it's a store that is doing very well."

A London-based spokesman for Primark, a low-cost clothing store that has been a huge success in Britain, confirmed there had been an "incident" at its store, which is located just north of Paris.

"Police are in attendance... We will do all we can to support our staff and their families," he said.

The incident comes on the eve of the traditional Bastille Day military parade.

This year, special forces will march down the Champs-Elysees for the first time in recognition of the role they played in countering the January attacks.