As Paris braced for another day of “yellow vest” anti-government protests, a massive explosion ripped through a building in a central area of the city, killing two firefighters and a Spanish tourist, injuring dozens and causing severe damage to nearby buildings.
"As firemen were looking for a gas leak in the building, a dramatic explosion took place," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said, adding that one of the firemen was buried under debris for several hours.
The blast at around 9am local time blew out the bakery on ground floor of a seven-storey apartment building on the corner of Rue de Trévise and Rue Sainte-Cécile in a touristy part of the ninth arrondissement.
It came as thousands of police were deployed across the city to try and prevent a repeat of the violence that on previous Saturdays saw protestors clash with security forces and attack banks and loot shops and cafés.
"It happened when there were people in the street, and firefighters inside," Mr Castaner said.
He said on his Twitter feed that two firefighters had died, and that 10 people, including one firefighter, had serious injuries, with another 37 people suffering lighter injuries.
Spain’s foreign minister said that a Spanish citizen, who was staying in one of the many tourist hotels in the area, had died in the blast.
Cars were overturned by the blast and glass and rubble were strewn across large swathes of the street. Dozens of residents were treated by rescue workers on the street.
Police also closed off streets in front of the nearby Garnier Opera house as emergency services landed two helicopters in front of the historic building to evacuate victims.
“Destruction for blocks after an explosion on Rue de Trévise,” tweeted American journalist Emily Molli who happened to be near the site of the blast when it happened.
“Lots of injuries, heard screaming like some were still trapped,” she said.
Paula Nagui, a receptionist in the nearby Hotel Diva, which is situated on the same street as the bakery, said she heard an “enormous blast… that blew out all the windows.”
She told Le Parisien newspaper that hotel guests, who were evacuated at the request of firefighters, initially thought it was a terror attack.
Just hours after the blast, thousands of yellow vest protesters marched noisily but peacefully through the Grands Boulevards district, just a few hundred metres from the scene of the explosion.
The interior ministry said that about 32,000 people turned out in yellow vest demonstrations across France on Saturday, including 8,000 in Paris, where some scuffles broke out between protesters and police.
But levels of violence were far lower than in previous Saturday protests.