The three robbers were inside for hours before fleeing and prompting a manhunt throughout the area, police said.
All 18 people were safely evacuated from the Primark store in a shopping centre in the town of Villeneuve-la-Garenne yesterday, according to a regional police official. Police were pursuing the gunmen – one of whom was thought to be a Primark employee – within the Qwartz mall complex but despite a large police presence they evaded arrest.
Hours after the robbery, police had failed to locate the men despite combing the 85,000 square metre mall and surrounding area.
“The three seem to have fled,” a source close to the inquiry told BFM TV.
Police surrounded the sprawling shopping centre and cordoned off the neighbourhood, adjacent to the Seine River about six miles north of central Paris.
The assailants had entered the store around 6:30am as employees arrived for work in the Paris suburb just north of the city in what police believe was an attempted robbery. Several people were already inside, primarily employees.
Officers from a special police unit entered the store, and a few officers emerged later accompanying women reported to be store employees, according to images broadcast on BFM television.
There was no immediate sign of a political or other motive for the robbery.
The area around the mall was shut down, all traffic stopped and other stores in the vicinity closed as special forces rushed to the scene.
The shopping centre was promptly evacuated but according to police, some 18 employees had remained inside, holed up in a canteen.
It is not yet clear whether they were taken there by the gunmen or whether they escaped on their own and hid there.
However, they “were evacuated around 10:30am, one of them was unwell but no-one was injured”, police said, adding security forces were still hunting for the gunmen.
The armed men were caught entering the mall on CCTV cameras but were not filmed leaving the premises, indicating that they were still inside.
However, despite the area around the mall being shut down and all traffic stopped, the men somehow slipped away.
The alert was raised by a member of staff who hid in a lavatory and sent her boyfriend a text message saying there were two gunmen at the store. The boyfriend then called the police.
A supply worker told Le Parisien he saw people fleeing the shopping centre in a panic.
Bruno Jahin, who arrived at the store to refill vending machines, said he had taken the lift to the first floor, where the deputy manageress told him an armed robbery was in progress.
“I saw people running and panicking so I turned round and went out,” he said. “I saw two people dressed in black. I don’t know if they were the robbers or not. They were at the door.”
Paris is still on high alert regarding any news of hostage takings in the wake of the January attacks by Islamic extremists who gunned down 17 people in and near Paris – including several who were held hostage in a Jewish supermarket.
The incident comes on the eve of the traditional Bastille Day military parade that takes place every year in Paris on 14 July, France’s national day.
A police spokesman said: “Nothing leads us to believe this hold up is terror-related.”