Suspect in French shooting attacks dead after raid, shootout
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REPORTING FROM PARIS -- A 31-hour standoff between French authorities and the suspected slayer of seven people, including three children, ended Thursday with a series of loud explosions and dramatic gunfight. Police said the suspect, Mohamed Merah, died in the raid.
French Interior Minister Claude Guéan said the suspect was hiding in the bathroom when an elite police squad raided the apartment in which he had been holed up. After quietly sitting in the bathtub while the officers searched the apartment, officials said, Merah came out with guns blazing and engaged the armed officers in a shootout.
Some officers said the gunfight was unlike any they had ever encountered.
Authorities said Merah then jumped out of a window of the apartment building, still shooting while falling to his death. Two police officers were injured in the gunfight but should recover, officials said.
Merah, 23, had pledged to hand himself over to police on Wednesday night, but reneged on the promise, officials said.
The standoff began about 3 a.m. Wednesday, when members of the elite police squad surrounded a block of apartments in a residential area of Toulouse in southwestern France. As police tried to smash their way into one unit, shots were fired from inside, injuring three officers.
Police then laid siege to the building, evacuating other residents and trying to persuade the alleged gunman in a series of shooting attacks to surrender. They identified the suspect as Merah, a French national of Algerian origin who officials said was thought to have links to a group associated with Al Qaeda.
Authorities said the suspect had acknowledged killing seven people in three separate shootings. Guéant said Merah had admitted gunning down a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, saying it was in revenge for the killing of Palestinian children.
Officials reported that the suspect also said he shot three soldiers, two of them Muslims, in retaliation for French military involvement in Afghanistan. The drive-by attacks happened before the shooting at the Jewish school.
Several hours into the siege, the suspect gave up one weapon, a .45-caliber Colt, believed to have been used in the three shootings. But at that point he was reported to still have two automatic weapons.
A woman police identified as the suspect’s mother was brought to the scene to speak with him. An elder brother was arrested in connection with the case.
The French government said Merah had been under surveillance by the security services.
He was reported to have traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. Reuters news service quoted an Afghan prison official as saying Merah was arrested five years ago and sentenced to three years behind bars for planting bombs in the province of Kandahar but escaped months later in a Taliban prison break.
However, the Telegraph in London later reported that the Afghan government denied ever detaining a French citizen named Mohamed Merah, casting doubt on the prison director’s claims.
Guéant said Merah was ‘talkative’ during the standoff and had ‘explained a lot about his itinerary’ to police negotiators.
‘His radicalization took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan,’ the interior minister said.
The break in the 10-day manhunt for the gunman came when a Yamaha motorcycle dealer in Toulouse recalled a young man asking how to disable the GPS tracker on his 500cc T-Max scooter, which officials said had been stolen and repainted. Witnesses at two of the shootings reported that the killer escaped on a similar vehicle.
Investigators said they also traced an Internet protocol address used by the suspected killer to arrange a meeting with the first victim, a paratrooper who was selling his motorbike and had placed an advertisement online.
Christian Etelin, a lawyer who represented Merah on charges of driving without a license in Toulouse last month, said the suspect knew he was under surveillance since returning from Afghanistan. He described Merah as ‘by no means rigid or fanatical’ and said he could not imagine him committing the shootings.
‘He was polite and courteous ... quite sweet actually,’ Etelin said.
President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to address the nation on Thursday. His office released the following statement:
‘The president of the Republic congratulates the security team following the conclusion of the tragic events of Montauban and Toulouse. Our thoughts at this time are with those who were killed and wounded by the alleged killer.’
-- Kim Willsher