- 18 people freed after intervention from French special forces
- Three armed men still believed to be on the loose and in the shopping centre
- One gunman believed to be member of staff at Primark
- Hostage situation began with attempted armed robbery on Primark
- Qwartz shopping centre to north of Paris on lock down
- Witnesses talk of people fleeing in panic
French police on Monday were hunting armed robbers who escaped after holding up a Primark store in a shopping mall near Paris, prompting special forces to intervene and seal off the area.
Elite forces freed 18 people who were being held hostage at the Primark store in a shopping centre at Villeneuve-la-Garenne to the north of Paris.
The gunmen -- one of whom was thought to be a Primark employee -- were still on the loose and believed to be inside the Qwartz mall.
The area around the mall was shut down, all traffic stopped and other stores in the vicinity closed up.
The mall was promptly evacuated but according to police, some 18 employees had remained inside, holed up in a canteen.
It was not clear whether they had been 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.
But while security forces initially thought the gunmen were still inside the mall, they realised after searching the premises that the men had escaped.
The suspects "appear to have run away, and the search continues outside the mall," a source close to the probe said.
A specialist armed police unit had been sent to the scene and the shopping mall was still in lock down.
At around 6.30am armed men broke in to the Primark store to carry out what we believe was an attempted armed robbery,” a police source told Le Parisien newspaper.
A witness the newspaper spoke to talked of employees, who were arriving for work, fleeing panic.
"Everyone was running and screaming: 'They are armed, they are armed' We must get out."
One of the hostages managed to raise the alarm by sending an SMS to her boyfriend telling her she was being held hostage by two armed men, reports said.
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 just north of Paris.
"Police are in attendance... We will do all we can to support our staff and their families," he said.
"We hope for a speedy and safe end to this incident."
The incident comes on the eve of the traditional military parade that takes place every year in Paris on July 14, France's national day.
This year, special forces such as the ones that intervened Monday will march down the Champs-Elysees for the first time in recognition of the role they played in countering the January attacks.