Police officers gather near the bank in the southwestern French city of… (Chantal Longo / Maxppp )
Reporting from Paris — Three members of a French parachute regiment were gunned down Thursday in a busy town center in southwestern France by an assassin on a scooter.
It was the second drive-by shooting of French soldiers in less than a week, leading investigators to fear military personnel were being targeted.
The three soldiers, all in uniforms, were standing by a bank ATM machine in the town of Montauban when the gunman opened fire shortly after 2 p.m. Two of the men, 24 and 26 years old, were killed instantly; the third, age 28, was in critical condition in a hospital Thursday night.
The soldiers were members of the 17th Engineer Airborne Regiment based at a barracks just yards from where they were shot. The unit has served in Afghanistan, though it was not immediately clear whether any of the victims had been deployed there.
Witnesses say the gunman, wearing a helmet with a visor covering most of his face, escaped on a scooter. Police immediately sealed off the area, where investigators found about 15 bullet casings.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the circumstances of the killings remained "confused."
"It was murder, that is for sure, but we cannot say for what reason," the president, who is in the middle of a reelection campaign, said at a political meeting.
Thursday's shootings came after a noncommissioned officer of another parachute regiment was gunned down Sunday in similar circumstances in Toulouse, 28 miles south of Montauban.
Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, a staff sergeant in the 1st Airborne Transportation Regiment, was shot in the head at close range outside a gymnasium by a gunman who sped off on a scooter. According to investigators, Ibn Ziaten, who was off duty and not in uniform at the time he was shot, had served with the French army in the African nations of Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon.
Investigators say they have not yet established a connection between the two shootings.
"Everyone thinks there's a link between the two incidents, but we have to wait for the first results of the inquiry," a police source told French journalists.
Willsher is a special correspondent.