French counter-terrorism police
French counter-terrorism police Reuters

French special forces evacuated 18 people from a mall near Paris Monday after gunmen attacked a Primark store inside, in what is believed to be an attempt to rob the shop, police said.

Authorities say they have ruled out terrorism as a motive for the incident.

"Around 6:30 am (0430 GMT), three armed criminals went into the Primark store for what we think was initially an attempt at armed robbery," a police source, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the incident at Villeneuve-la-Garenne.

An employee first alerted her boyfriend of the hold-up around 7 a.m. when she sent him a text message saying they had been taken hostage by two armed men, another source said.

According to police, some 18 Primark employees had subsequently left the store and grouped together in a cantine inside the Qwartz mall, where all other shops had closed up.

It is as yet unclear whether they were taken there by the gunmen or whether they escaped on their own.

They "were evacuated around 10:30, one of them was unwell but no one was injured," police said, adding security forces were still hunting for the gunmen.

Despite that, the armed robbers managed to escape the scene, sparking a major manhunt.

Police have stopped all traffic in the area around the Qwartz mall where the Primark store is located.

Meanwhile, witnesses have spoken of the terrifying moments the gunmen entered the building.

"I saw two robbers, dressed in black, hooded. They were calm, not in a hurry," said Bruno Jahin, a 20-year-old witness.

"The tallest... had a gun, I think it was a pump-action shotgun. The other man was smaller.  

"I was at the store's stockroom door, they passed in front of me... They went to the offices," he said.

"I heard 'this is a hold-up, you must go' several times... I turned around and took the lift.    

"They were definitely looking for money, it's a store that is doing very well."  

A London-based spokesman for Primark, a low-cost clothing store that has been a huge success in Britain, confirmed there had been an "incident" at its store, which is located just north of Paris.

"Police are in attendance... We will do all we can to support our staff and their families," he said.  

The incident comes on the eve of the traditional Bastille Day military parade.    This year, special forces will march down the Champs-Elysees for the first time in recognition of the role they played in countering the January attacks.

France is currently in a state of high alert, having experienced a number of deadly Islamist terrorist attacks recently, most notably a series of lethal attacks in Paris this past January that left 17 murdered.

AFP contributed to this report.

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