COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A gunman opened fire Saturday on a Copenhagen cultural center, killing one man in what authorities called a terror attack against a free speech event featuring an artist who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.
The shooting, which also wounded three police officers, 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 shooting, which took place shortly before 4 p.m. Danish police said the gunman used an automatic weapon to shoot through the windows of the Krudttoenden cultural center, which TV footage showed were riddled with bullet holes. The gunman then fled in a carjacked Volkswagen Polo that was found later a few kilometers (miles) away, police said.
They said the victim was a man about 40 who was inside the cultural center. 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 “indicate that we are talking about a terror attack.”
Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who has faced numerous death threats for caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, was one of the main speakers at Saturday’s panel discussion, titled “Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression.” 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.
“What other motive could there be? It’s possible it was inspired by Charlie Hebdo,” he said, referring to the Jan. 7 attack by Islamic extremists on the French newspaper in Paris. He spoke from an undisclosed location for his own security.
Police initially said there were two gunmen but later said they believed there was only one shooter. They described him as 25-30 years old with an athletic build who was carrying a black automatic weapon and released a blurred photograph of the suspect wearing dark clothes and a scarf covering part of his face.
“I saw a masked man running past,” said Helle Merete Brix, one of the event’s organizers. “I clearly consider this as an attack on Lars Vilks.”
Niels Ivar Larsen, one of the speakers at the event, told the TV2 channel, he heard someone shouting and firing automatic weapons. “Police returned the fire and I hid behind the bar. I felt surreal, like in a movie,” Larsen said.
Visiting the scene of the shooting, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said “all indications are that the shooting … was a political attack and therefore an act of terror.”
“At first there was panic. People crawled down under tables,” Vilks said. “My bodyguards quickly pulled me away.”
The cultural center had a lecture hall as well as a cafe. Vilks said no one in the hall was wounded.
“We were well isolated in there. It would have been much worse if this happened during the break, when people walk out,” Vilks said.
He said he deplored the death and the injuries but was unfazed as to what it meant for his own safety.
“I’m not shaken at all by this incident. Not the least,” he told AP by phone.
Police spokesman Joergen Skov said it was possible the gunman had planned the “same scenario” as in the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
François Zimeray, the French ambassador to Denmark who was at the event to speak about the Charlie Hebdo attack, tweeted that he was “still alive.” Police said he was not wounded.
French President Francois Hollande called the Copenhagen shooting “deplorable” and said Thorning-Schmidt would have the “full solidarity of France in this trial.” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was arriving Sunday in Copenhagen.
European Union officials also condemned the attack.
Sweden’s security service said it was sharing information about the case with its 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 — even a respectful one — 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. The weekly newspaper also lampoons other religions, as well as governments and politicians.