A knifeman killed two women at the main train station in the French Mediterranean city of Marseille on Sunday before being shot dead by soldiers patrolling there, local officials and police said.

Soldiers posted in the station as part of a special force set up to guard vulnerable areas in terror-hit France responded to the stabbings in front of the station and shot the man dead, local officials said.

Armed police were deployed afterwards and the grand and ornate rail terminus in the bustling heart of France's second-biggest city was evacuated, stopping all train traffic on one of the country's busiest lines.

“Two victims have been stabbed to death,” regional police chief Olivier de Mazieres told AFP, referring to the attack which occurred at 1:45pm.

The latest deaths came with France still on high alert and in a state of emergency following a string of attacks in recent years by extremists linked to the militant Islamic State (IS) group or Al Qaeda.

Since 2015, a total of 239 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in France, according to an AFP count before Sunday's incident.

After the stabbings, anti-terror prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into “killings linked to a terrorist organisation” and the “attempted killing of a public official”.

New anti-terror law

The incident came only days after the IS released a recording of what it said was its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging his followers to strike their enemies in the West.

France has deployed troops and its air force to the Middle East and is a leading partner in the US-led international coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, where IS fighters are being driven back.

France has suffered several major terror attacks since 2015, including on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January followed by an assault on Paris bars and the Bataclan concert hall by gunmen in November of that year.

A killing spree in Nice in July 2016 left 86 people dead when an extremist drove a truck into crowds after a fireworks display on Bastille Day.

But there have also been numerous smaller attacks on police officers, soldiers or members of the public since then, sometimes carried out by people with severe psychological problems.

Since November 2015, the country has been in a state of emergency which gives the government and security forces greater powers to combat extremists and launch anti-terror raids.

Controversial security law

New centrist President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to end the state of emergency with a new and controversial security law that will make many of the provisions of the emergency regime permanent.

Despite criticism from rights groups that the law reduces judicial oversight over the actions of the police, the lower house of parliament is set to vote on a first draft of the law on Tuesday.

French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb posted on Twitter that he would travel to Marseille on Sunday.

In August, a man driving a van killed one person and seriously injured another after ploughing into a bus stop in Marseille, raising fears of another terror incident.

But doctors said later that the man had severe mental problems and discounted any terror link.

The soldiers who shot the knifeman on Sunday were part of the Operation Sentinelle force composed of 7,000 troops who guard high-risk areas such as transport hubs, tourist sites and religious buildings.

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