France shootings suspect holed up in building

JOHANNA DECORSE Associated Press Published:

TOULOUSE, France (AP) -- A gunman claiming al-Qaida links and suspected in the killings of three Jewish children, a rabbi and three paratroopers barricaded himself in an apartment Wednesday after a predawn police raid erupted into a firefight.

Hundreds of police surrounded the building in the southwestern city of Toulouse after three officers were wounded while trying to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, who authorities said had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The suspect told police he belonged to al-Qaida and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said. The man also said he was angry about French military intervention abroad, Gueant said.

An Interior Ministry official identified the suspect as Mohamed or Mohammad Merah, who has been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. After hours of trying to persuade him to surrender, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders.

The raid was part of France's biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists, and revived memories of the fear that gripped the country at the time. The chase began after France's worst-ever school shooting Monday and last week's attacks on paratroopers, a series of killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for presidential elections starting next month.

French authorities have been following several leads but said the man holed up in the Toulouse apartment building is their key suspect. The suspect 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 has more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle, authorities said. Gueant said other weapons had been found in the suspect's car.

There was some confusion over the suspect's background, because a person of the same name was arrested in southern Afghanistan five years ago and escaped from his prison cell in Kandahar province in a 2008 mass jailbreak, according to Kandahar provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal. However, Faisal says their records also show that Merah was an Afghan citizen from Kandahar province.

Police swept in soon after 3 a.m. (0200 GMT; 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday) on the residential neighborhood in Toulouse where the suspect was holed up. At one point, volleys of gunfire were exchanged. An elite squad was handling the negotiations.

The raid was part of a manhunt for a 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.

The suspect promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, then stopped talking to negotiators, Gueant said. In the early afternoon, he resumed talking, a police official said.

"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Wednesday 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 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.

The building where the raid is taking place dates from the 1960s. The suspect's apartment is on the ground floor, said Eric Lambert, whose son lives in the building, one floor up. Lambert said the suspect helped his son move into the building a few months ago, lending a hand to carry a couch in.

The suspect "said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians," Gueant told reporters, adding that he is "less explicit" about why he killed French paratroopers. The paratroopers were of Muslim and French Caribbean origin, but the interior minister said the suspect told them the ethnic origin has nothing to do with his actions. "He's after the army," Gueant said.

Police, who were still questioning people elsewhere, have followed every lead and hypothesis from Islamist terrorist to a deranged ex-soldier or someone following in the footsteps of Norway's Anders Behring Breivik, the rightist extremist who killed 77 people in a rampage last year.

Sarkozy has said a "monster" was on the loose in France and vowed to track him down. Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term in upcoming elections. He raised the terror alert in the region to its highest level ever, which put hundreds of reinforcements into the area.

Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said a key to tracking the suspect was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle that he has used in attacks. Delage confirmed reports that the motorcycle was 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 the suspect's 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.

Police studied the online communications by the first paratrooper killed. He was shot March 11 after posting an announcement online to sell his motorcycle, the police official said, and investigators believe the gunman responded to the ad and lured the paratrooper into an isolated place to kill him.

The schoolchildren killed, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday. Relatives sobbed inconsolably by the gravesides.

In Paris on Wednesday, a package bomb exploded at the Indonesian Embassy, causing minor damage, but no injuries, police said. The source of the package was unclear. Indonesia's foreign minister said it was too early to say whether there was any link between the mail bomb and an attack on the attacks in southern France.

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Elaine Ganley, Thomas Adamson, Jamey Keaten, Ingrid Rousseau, Cecile Brisson and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.