Standoff with shooting suspect unfolds in France

A standoff with a gunman deemed France’s public enemy No. 1 after he claimed responsibility for three shootings that left seven people dead entered its second day Thursday as heavily armed police tried to extricate the suspect from a barricaded apartment in Toulouse.

Elite SWAT-style officers had cordoned off the four-story building and spent more than 24 hours trying to persuade 23-year-old Mohamed Merah to surrender after he boasted of a 10-day terrorist rampage that left three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers dead. Merah told police negotiators he was linked to a group associated with Al Qaeda.

Authorities first tried to talk him out, and then they tried freezing him out by turning off the gas and electricity to his apartment. Finally, shortly before midnight Wednesday, they tried to scare him out by using explosives to blast the walls of the building where he was holed up.

Witnesses reported three explosions and orange flashes lighting up the night sky after Merah reportedly reneged on a pledge to surrender. Further blasts and bursts of gunfire were heard a few hours later, but officials denied that a full-out assault was underway in the southwestern city.

The hundreds of heavily armed security officers, many in body armor, were under strict orders to bring Merah in alive.

The unemployed auto-body repairman spent Wednesday shouting his allegiance to Al Qaeda and telling police negotiators that his only regret was “not having more time to kill more people.” Police described his declarations as “icy.”

A massive manhunt had begun Monday after a gunman barged into a Jewish school in Toulouse, shooting three children and a rabbi point-blank. Officials said the gunman chased and cornered one victim, an 8-year-old girl, before pulling her to him by the hair and shooting her in the head.

The school attack followed two drive-by attacks last week on French paratroopers; three soldiers were killed.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, had claimed responsibility for all three attacks. Merah also boasted that he had “brought France to its knees,” Molins said, and had been planning further killings when police surrounded him.

Merah claimed that he been asked by Al Qaeda to carry out a suicide attack in Europe but refused because he preferred to kill and live, officials said. He said he had “accepted a general mission to commit an attack in France,” French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters.

Molins, however, warned that all Merah’s claims needed to be checked.

The siege began about 3 a.m. Wednesday when members of a police tactical squad surrounded a block of apartments in a residential area of Toulouse. Two hours earlier, a man believed to be Merah had called a French television station, France 24, claiming he had carried out the three shootings.

As police tried to smash their way into one ground-floor unit, shots were fired from inside, injuring three officers.

Gueant said Merah had “talked a lot” to police negotiators, telling officers he attacked a local Jewish school in revenge for the killing of Palestinian children.

On Wednesday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad condemned the French attacks and dismissed any attempt to link the crimes to the cause of Palestinian statehood. “It is time for those criminals to stop exploiting the name of Palestine through their terrorist actions or claim victory to the rights of Palestinian children, who only seek a decent life for themselves and all children of the world,” Fayyad said.

And before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who accompanied the bodies of the children and rabbi to Israel for burial, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the world to fight anti-Semitism and terrorism.

Merah also reportedly said he had shot the three soldiers, two of them Muslims, in retaliation for French military involvement in Afghanistan.

Several hours into the siege, the suspect gave up one weapon, a Colt .45, believed to have been used in the three shootings. But it was believed he still had two automatic weapons.

A woman whom police identified as the suspect’s mother was asked by police to persuade him to surrender. She refused, saying she had “no control over him.”

Merah, one of five children, was reportedly first arrested at 17 and had a history of minor offenses for which he spent time in jail. An older brother was also arrested Wednesday.

The government said Merah had been under surveillance by the security services but had shown no signs of planning any “criminal act.”

Merah 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 Kandahar province 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.

Gueant said Merah 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,” Gueant said.

French army officials confirmed that Merah tried to enlist in 2008 and had passed the necessary tests, but he was rejected because of his criminal record. He had also applied to join the French Foreign Legion in Toulouse.

The break in the manhunt came when a Yamaha dealer in Toulouse recalled a young man asking how to disable the GPS tracker on his 500cc TMAX scooter, which had been stolen and repainted. Witnesses at two of the shootings reported that the killer escaped on a similar vehicle.

Investigators also traced an Internet address believed to have been used by the killer to arrange a meeting with the first victim, a paratrooper who was selling his motorbike and had placed an ad online.

Christian Etelin, a lawyer who represented Merah in court last month on charges of driving without a license in Toulouse, said Merah knew he had been 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 said Merah had “the face of an archangel.”

“He was polite and courteous ... quite sweet actually,” Etelin said.

With just five weeks before the presidential election, Jewish and Muslim leaders have urged the candidates not to make political capital of the killings.

The fact that the gunman appeared to have North African roots and Al Qaeda links played into the hands of France’s extreme right: Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front immediately declared the “risk of fundamentalism” had been underestimated in France and proposed a referendum on bringing back the death penalty.

Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign for reelection had been floundering, was said to be hoping that his handling of the case would restore his image as France’s “Super Cop.”

One of the president’s defining moments was in 1993 when he was mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine and a man calling himself the Human Bomb held a classroom of children in the town hostage. Sarkozy personally negotiated their release. The Human Bomb was shot to death by police after a two-day standoff.

Political campaigning has been temporarily suspended but is expected to resume in the next few days.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.