French open probe into gunman's brother

ANGELA CHARLTON Associated Press Published:

PARIS (AP) -- Signs mounted Sunday that the brother of a radical Islamist gunman who killed schoolchildren and paratroopers in southern France may have helped prepare the attacks.

The Paris prosecutor's office opened a judicial inquiry into whether older brother Abdelkader Merah was complicit in preparing terrorist acts. And a special anti-terrorist judge was expected to file preliminary charges against him later Sunday.

The moves suggest investigators have strong reason to believe that 23-year-old gunman Mohamed Merah was not acting alone when he planned his attacks, which left three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers dead and stunned France.

Merah claimed responsibility for the killings during a standoff with police that ended when he died Thursday in a hail of gunfire as he jumped out a window.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said the inquiry is also looking at anyone else who could have been involved in planning the attacks earlier this month in the city of Toulouse and nearby Montauban.

Investigators are trying to determine what role 30-year-old Abdelkader Merah played in acquiring his younger brother's arsenal and financing his trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East. Mohamed Merah claimed allegiance to al-Qaida and told police he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan for training.

Abdelkader is suspected of possible complicity to murder and theft and involvement in a terrorist enterprise, the prosecutor's statement said. Abdelkader was questioned several years ago about alleged links to a network sending Toulouse-area youths to Iraq, but no action was brought against him at the time.

The brother's girlfriend, Yamina Mesbah, was released early Sunday without charge. The Merah brothers' mother was released Friday night, also without charge.

The girlfriend denied any involvement in what happened and said she was shocked by the killings, her lawyer Guy Debuissou said, adding that Abdelkader Merah appeared to have led a double life.

"This woman was unaware of anything about her husband's accessory, complementary or secret life," the lawyer said. The couple married according to Muslim custom in 2006, but did not undergo the civil ceremony required in France for a marriage to be recognized.

Abdelkader Merah took five or six trips to Egypt, ostensibly to study Arabic literature, and his girlfriend joined him on two or three, the lawyer said.

During questioning by police, the lawyer said, Mesbah learned that Merah had had other motivations for his trip to Egypt and "a life that led him toward an extremely intense ... fundamentalism."

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Masha Macpherson and Johanna Decorse in Toulouse contributed to this report.