al-Qaida links claimed by French gunman, police surround home in standoff
Suspect wanted in the killing of three Jewish schoolchildren earlier this week
By Johanna Decourse
TOULOUSE, France — French police surrounded an apartment building where a gunman claiming al-Qaida links and suspected in the killings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers barricaded himself Wednesday and stopped talking to negotiators.
An early morning raid by hundreds of police to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent erupted into a firefight. Three police officers were wounded, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
The suspect told police he belonged to al-Qaida and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Gueant said. The suspect also said he was angry about French military intervention abroad, and had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gueant said.
The suspect threw a handgun out a window in exchange for a communications device, but he has more weapons, authorities said. An Interior Ministry official identified the suspect as Mohammad Merah, who has been under surveillance for having "fundamentalist" views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Police swept in soon after 3 a.m. (0200 GMT; 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday) on the residential neighborhood in northern Toulouse where the suspect was holed up. At one point, volleys of gunfire heard around the neighborhood were exchanged. An elite squad was handling the negotiations.
It was part of a manhunt for the shooter who has killed seven people, including French soldiers and Jewish school children, in three attacks in the Toulouse area. In Monday's attack, the three young children and a rabbi were killed.
"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a declaration on national television before heading to the funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in nearby Montauban.
The series of attacks — every four days since March 11 — began with the killing of another paratrooper in Toulouse.
The interior minister, who was at the scene of the standoff, said the suspect tossed from his window a Colt 45 used in each of the three attacks. He has other weapons, like an AK-47 machine gun, but is talking with police and said he would surrender in the afternoon, Gueant said.
"The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials," Gueant said, explaining authorities want to "take him alive ... It is imperative for us."
A judicial official said the suspect's mother, his brother and a companion of the brother were detained for questioning. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
The interior minister had said the suspect's brother "is also engaged in the Salafi ideology," a reference to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press