BERLIN — The police locked down the center of the eastern German city of Halle on Wednesday, warning citizens to stay at home while they searched for attackers who fatally shot at least two people near a synagogue during services for Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism. German press reports said at least one gunman had opened fire at the synagogue in what was feared to have been a premeditated anti-Semitic attack.
The assailants fled in a vehicle, the Halle police said, as they cordoned off the synagogue and blocked major arteries in the city. They later reported the arrest of one suspect. The identities of the victims and the total number of attackers were not immediately clear.
“Several shots were fired,” the Halle police said in a statement posted to Twitter.
Germany’s federal prosecutor took over the investigation into the attack, a spokeswoman said, a step indicating that the authorities were treating it as politically motivated.
A witness to the shooting, which took place in broad daylight, told local broadcaster MDR that he had seen a gunman dressed in military gear and armed with several weapons firing at the synagogue. Other news outlets reported that a hand grenade was thrown into a Jewish cemetery nearby.
Prayers for Yom Kippur, began at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday and had been scheduled to continue until 8:30 p.m. It is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, and services brought many people to the temple.
Max Privorotzki, a leader of the Jewish community in Halle, told Der Spiegel that it appeared that the gunman or gunmen had tried to enter the synagogue, but that police officers posted outside the building had resisted the attackers.
“At the moment, there are 70 to 80 people inside the synagogue,” Mr. Privorotzki said.
“The attacker fired several times at the door and threw petrol bombs, firecrackers or other explosives to try to force his way in,” Mr. Privorotzki was quoted by Der Spiegel as saying. “But the door stayed shut, God protected us.”
The police told MDR that more shots had been fired in Landsberg, a suburb of Halle, though those reports could not be independently confirmed. The mayor of Halle convened a crisis team in reaction to the shootings and urged residents to remain in their homes until further notice.
Immediately after the shooting, television footage showed police officers wearing helmets and carrying automatic weapons as they patrolled streets around the synagogue that had been sealed off with red-and-white tape. Other officers used a ladder to climb over a high brick wall surrounding the cemetery.
One attacker was thought to have fled in a taxi, Der Spiegel reported, and a suspect was apprehended on the highway outside Halle.
Reinforcements were sent to provide extra security around synagogues in nearby Dresden and Leipzig, the local police said
Anti-Semitic crime and hate crimes targeting foreigners have both increased almost 20 percent in Germany over the past year, according to official figures published in May. The data included a wide range of offenses, including assault, insults, graffiti, hateful postings online and the use of Nazi symbols.
All Jewish institutions in Germany, including synagogues, schools and other cultural centers, are guarded around the clock by local police. In Berlin, which has the country’s largest Jewish population, the police have also provided security to cafes, restaurants and shops that are owned and frequented by Jews.
Earlier this year, the country’s top official for efforts against anti-Semitism warned that Jews should not wear their skullcaps everywhere in public.