By The Associated Press
TOULOUSE, France (AP) — In a tense standoff, French riot police demanded the surrender Wednesday of a gunman who reportedly boasted of shooting seven victims in an al-Qaida-linked terror spree aimed at “bringing France to its knees.”
Hundreds of heavily armed police cordoned off streets around an apartment building in the southwestern city of Toulouse after a pre-dawn raid to arrest the suspect, Mohamed Merah, erupted into a firefight. Three police were wounded, the suspected holed up in the apartment and negotiations with the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent dragged on for hours.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah was a self-taught radical Salafi who expressed glee at killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers. Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, he said.
Merah was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch the 3 a.m. raid, Molins said.
In the negotiations, Merah “expresses no regret, only that he didn’t have time to have more victims. And he even bragged, he said, of bringing France to its knees,” the prosecutor said.
Late Wednesday, Interior Minister Claude Gueant told France-2 TV that Merah planned to turn himself in at night “to be more discreet.” Nearby street lights were turned off.
The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early in the day. Molins said the brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
French authorities – like others in Europe – have long been concerned about “lone-wolf” attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who self-radicalize online since they are harder to find and track. Molins’ comments, however, marked the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.
Merah told police he belonged to al-Qaida and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Gueant said, adding the gunman was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
“He wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Gueant told reporters. “He’s (also) after the army.”
The police raid was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France’s worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers beginning March 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term, vowed to defend France.
“Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed and another injured Thursday in Montauban, near Toulouse.
The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in, then halted negotiations. Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were prepared to storm the building if he did not surrender.
After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France beefed up its legal arsenal – now seen as one of the most effective in Western Europe and a reference for countries including the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sarkozy’s office said President Barack Obama called him Wednesday to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect. The statement said France and the United States are “more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together.”
In recent years, French counterterrorism officials have focused mainly on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Osama Bin Laden’s network that has its roots in an insurgent group in Algeria, a former French colony.
Molins said Merah’s first trip to Afghanistan ended with him being picked up by Afghan police “who turned him over to the American army who put him on the first plane to France.”
“He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier,” Molins said, adding also planned to attack two police officers. “He claims to have always acted alone.”
Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Molins added.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Merah had been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” Islamic views.
During the standoff, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders. The suspect’s apartment was on the ground floor of the postwar building, locals said.
French authorities said Merah threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but had more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in his car.
“The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials,” Gueant added, explaining authorities want to “take him alive … It is imperative for us.”
Delage said a key to tracking Merah was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle he reportedly used in all three attacks – a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.
According to Delage, one of his brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.
The shooter has proved to be a meticulous operator. At the site of the second paratrooper killing, police found the clip for the gun used in all three attacks – but no fingerprints or DNA on it.
Those slain at the Jewish school, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday as relatives sobbed inconsolably. The bodies of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsenego had been flown there earlier in the day.
At the funeral ceremony, Myriam’s eldest brother, Avishai, in his 20s, wailed and called to God to give his parents the strength “to endure the worst trial that can be endured.”
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, meanwhile, denounced the deadly shooting attack at the Jewish school and condemned the link to Palestinian children.
“It’s time for criminals to stop using the Palestinian cause to justify their terrorist actions,” Fayyad said in a statement. “The children of Palestine want nothing but dignified lives for themselves and for all the children.”