MEPs and other EU staff hid in restaurants and alleys in Strasbourg during a gunman’s rampage in the French city on Tuesday (11 December) evening.
The suspect was still on the loose on Wednesday morning after killing three people and injuring 12 others, six of them seriously, the night before.
France was also on “emergency alert”, with heightened security at border crossing points and Christmas Markets in what was being treated as a terrorist incident, its interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said on Wednesday.
The attack, which appeared to target Strasbourg’s Christmas Market, the largest in Europe, was carried out by a 29-year old man on a French intelligence watchlist, he added.
“He fought twice with our security forces,” before escaping, with 350 police on his trail, the minister said.
The shooting started at about 8PM in a sealed off part of Strasbourg city centre, where people had had to show their bags before entering, following previous Islamist threats.
Tuesday’s attack also fell in the middle of a European Parliament (EP) session in the city, the last before its vacation break.
MEPs, officials, and other EU personnel hid in restaurants and alleyways where they stayed put until almost midnight or later as French security services swooped in and sirens wailed.
Others stayed in lockdown in the EU parliament building.
“I just want to be home. I got the fright of my life last night,” one EU official who hid in a restaurant told EUobserver.
The “French police/army were amazing” in their reaction, but the French emergency phone number failed to take her calls during the crisis, she added.
The EU personnel kept family and friends in Brussels and other European cities abreast of developments via phone messages and tweets.
“Am in restaurant in centre of Strasbourg where shots fired with unconfirmed reports of three dead. Restaurant locked and not letting anyone in or out,” Richard Corbett, a British MEP, tweeted.
Danish and Swedish MEPs also spoke to national media as events unfolded.
Denmark’s Jens Rohde was with his wife and two children “right next to the street where the shots were fired and where the wounded are under blankets,” he told Danish newspaper Berlingske.
They were forced to stay put despite the cold weather “by police and anti-terrorist forces in heavy combat uniforms”, he said.
“There are lots of photographers and I can see that it’s serious,” he added.
“I am in a restaurant in misery,” Swedish MEP Anders Sellstroem told Sweden’s SVT broadcaster.
“We were told that there has been shooting and we have to stay in … but I feel calm,” he added.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, who held crisis talks in Paris, voiced the “solidarity of the entire nation” with victims in a statement.
Antonio Tajani, the Italian EP president, added: “I express all my sorrow for the victims of the Strasbourg attacks”.
“This parliament will not be intimidated by terrorist or criminal attacks. Let us move on. We will continue to work and react strengthened by freedom and democracy against terrorist violence,” he said.
The last time France suffered terrorist attacks was in May and March in Paris and in Carcassone and Trebes in the south of the country, which claimed six lives, including those of both assailants.