A heavily armed gunman opened fire aboard a packed high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris late Friday afternoon, wounding several passengers before he was tackled and subdued by two Americans, French officials said, describing the pair as heroes who may have averted a mass killing.
At least one of the Americans was a member of the armed services, and some news reports said they were both Marines.
The assault was described as a terrorist attack by the Belgian prime minister, and French officials said one of the Americans was among the wounded. Their conditions were not immediately clear.
French officials were refusing to characterize the episode as terrorism late Friday night. But the anti-terrorism unit of the Paris prosecutor’s office immediately took charge of the investigation.
A 26-year-old man of Moroccan origin was taken into custody by the police as the train, loaded with 554 passengers, many frightened, pulled into the station in Arras, in northern France, according to French news media.
Passengers spoke of hearing gunshots as the train was traveling through the countryside, and of seeing bloodied individuals rolling out into the grass when the train lurched to a stop during a chaotic few minutes of shooting.
France, on high alert after deadly terrorist attacks this year, immediately sent Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to Arras, where he commended the two Americans who had helped “neutralize this extremely violent passenger,” praising them for their “great bravery” and saying that “without their sang-froid we could have been confronted with a terrible tragedy.”
A Defense Department spokesman in Washington, Capt. Jeff Davis, said a member of the American military was on the train and had been injured in the episode. He said Pentagon officials had not confirmed the name or rank or service, or whether the second American was also a service member. CNN, quoting an unidentified European counterterrorism official, said both were Marines in plain clothes.
Police sources quoted in the French news media said the Americans thought they had heard the suspect loading ammunition into a weapon in one of the toilets and confronted him as he exited. The attack occurred as the train was hurtling at top speed toward Paris, on Belgian territory.
It was not immediately clear how the Americans had concluded from the noise that the assailant had been loading a weapon, suggesting that they may have observed him acting suspiciously before he entered the bathroom. It also was unclear how many weapons the gunman was carrying. French news accounts said he was armed with an automatic pistol, a Kalashnikov rifle and a knife.
Some accounts quoted a passenger as saying that the gunman was shirtless and that he saw a shaven-headed man in a T-shirt throw himself on the assailant and push him to the floor.
French Twitter messages surged with praise for the Americans. “Enormous respect for the two American soldiers who prevented a terrorist attack,” said @Math2ieu. Others called for the pair to be awarded the Legion of Honor.
The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said on Twitter, “I condemn the terrorist attack,” and expressed his sympathy for the victims.
A French actor, Jean-Hugues Anglade, who appeared in the 1986 film “Betty Blue,” was aboard the train. Cazeneuve confirmed French news media reports that the actor was slightly injured.
In an indication of how seriously the French were taking the assault, President François Hollande issued a statement Friday night saying that “everything is being done” to determine what had happened on the train, having handed the investigation over to the country’s top anti-terrorism investigators.
President Barack Obama was briefed on the train assault and how it was foiled, administration officials said.
“Echoing the statements of French authorities, the president expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker,” the White House Press Office said in a statement. “While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy. We will remain in close contact with French authorities as the investigation proceeds.”
One passenger, identified only as Maxime, told a local paper, La Voix du Nord, that the assault lasted about two minutes.
“The train started slowing down, before suddenly stopping,” the passenger was quoted as saying. “We saw people covered in blood, jumping off, running, then rolling into the grass. They looked totally shocked.”
Another passenger was quoted as hearing “two gunshots. But we thought it was coming from the train, that there was some problem with the train. Then the train started to brake, and it stopped in the middle of the countryside,” the passenger, Maty, told the newspaper.
All of the passengers were taken to a gymnasium in Arras until they could be identified by the French police.
The high-speed train is popular for travel between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It is used extensively by businesspeople, diplomats, European Union officials and tourists.
Unlike the Eurostar train between Paris and London, however, luggage does not pass through X-ray machines or other forms of screening.
Plainclothes security officers are said to be frequently aboard the trains. On the platforms of the Gare du Nord in Paris, where the trains arrive and depart, uniformed police officers are often visible. But safeguarding the international service is challenging because the trains leave almost every hour.
France’s sensitivities to terrorist assaults have been heightened since January, when Islamic militants killed 17 in attacks in and around Paris. In June, an Islamist extremist beheaded his boss in southern France and tried to blow up a gas plant.
French lawmakers have passed tough surveillance laws in the wake of these attacks, and the anti-immigrant, far right National Front party has seen its popularity surge.