French police surround gunman in Toulouse apartment

Some 300 police surrounding Mohamed Merah, suspected of killing 7 people before Jewish school massacre.

French police in Toulouse (night)_370 (photo credit: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
French police in Toulouse (night)_370
(photo credit: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters)
Security forces and the man believed to have brutally murdered a teacher and three children at a Jewish school, as well as three French soldiers, engaged in a dramatic standoff in the southern French city of Toulouse on Wednesday night.
About 300 policemen kept Mohamed Merah, a Muslim French national with alleged ties to al-Qaida, holed up in an apartment as the siege entered its 23rd hour at presstime.
Earlier in the day, a special operations unit made three attempts to storm the place where Merah was hiding but was forced to retreat each time after he opened fire on them. Three French policemen received treatment for their wounds.
Meanwhile, new information on Merah seemed to indicate French security forces may have been at fault for not apprehending him sooner. The 24-year-old of Algerian descent was on a police list of people known to have ties to an Islamist group.
Authorities said the gunman had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.
Merah returned to France where he is said to have been kept under some sort of surveillance by authorities.
However, it took 10 days from the time of the first attack in Toulouse on March 11, until early Wednesday morning for police to close in on him.
“If he was indeed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in prison in Kandahar as one report says and he managed to come back to France, there are a lot of questions to be asked,” former FBI agent Jack Cloonan told France 24 television.
Speaking to press at the French ambassador’s residence in Jaffa, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé dismissed criticism of French security forces, saying they could not have stopped Merah before he allegedly struck a third time at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse.
“It’s true that there are lists of people who may be suspect in such events because of their ties to terror groups,” Juppé said through a translator.
“However, the link between this man and the attacks... that link was made only on Monday night and could have been made only after the attack [on the Jewish school].”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant, also in Israel for the Jewish victims’ funerals, said Merah was a member of an ideological Islamic group in France but this organization was not involved in plotting any violence.
Merah told police negotiators he had killed three French soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan.
“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris prosecutor François Molins, part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference.
The first shooting linked to Merah took place on March 11, when the body of St.-Sgt. Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a French paratrooper of North African descent, was found shot dead behind a school in Toulouse.
A similar shooting occurred last Thursday, when two other French soldiers, Cpl. Abel Chennouf and Pvt.
Mohamed Legouadalso, both also of North African descent, were killed in broad daylight at a shopping mall in Montauban, some 50 kilometers north of Toulouse.
Police tests revealed the same gun was used on both occasions and a massive manhunt for a spree killer on the loose commenced.
Four days later, on Monday morning, a man showed up outside Ozar Hatorah and opened fire at parents and children who gathered there at the start of the school day.
Rabbi Yonatan Sandler, 30; his sons Aryeh, six, and Gavriel, three, and the school director’s daughter Miriam Monsonego, eight, were shot at point blank range. The gunman fled the scene on a black Model T-Max motorcycle, the same used in the second shooting. Police said one of the two guns he used was the same used in the two earlier slayings.
The gunman, who filmed his killings with a small camera, had already identified another soldier and two police officers he wished to kill, Molins said. The gunman had repeated promises to surrender on Wednesday evening to members of the elite RAID unit surrounding the apartment house, whose other residents had been evacuated.
“He has explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr and that he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” Molins said.
Over the past couple of days there was much speculation over the gunman’s motives. One report, widely quoted in the Israeli media, said three neo-Nazis were the key suspects. French police later said the men saying were not connected to the shootings.
A France 24 employee on Wednesday night said she received an anonymous call at work the day before. The caller, who police later said was Merah, boasted he had killed the seven victims because of his hatred of Jews and France’s involvement in Afghanistan.
“The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” the France 24 employee quoted the young man as saying.
Gueant said Merah had contacted the first soldier he attacked on the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle.
Investigators identified the computer IP address he used – that of his mother – because he was already under surveillance for radical Islamist beliefs.
“We knew, and that is why he was under surveillance, that he had traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the minister said.
Merah’s telephone was tapped starting on Monday and with the help of other information the police decided to raid his house. Merah has a criminal record in France, but nothing indicating such an attack was possible, Gueant said.
A police source told Reuters that investigators had also received a tip-off from a scooter repair shop in Toulouse where the gunman asked to change the color of the Yamaha scooter used to flee the shootings, and to remove a GPS tracker device.
Gueant said Merah on Monday threw a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out of a window of the block of apartments where he was under siege, in exchange for a mobile phone, but was still armed.
Two policemen were wounded in a firefight with Merah after officers swooped at 3 a.m.
Police sources said they had conducted a controlled explosion of the suspect’s car at around 9 a.m. after discovering it was loaded with weapons. Officials said police had also arrested Merah’s girlfriend and one of his brothers, who is also known to authorities as a radical Islamist.
A group of young men from Merah’s neighborhood described him as a polite man of slight build who liked soccer and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.
“He isn’t the big bearded guy that you can imagine, you know the cliché,” said Kamal, who declined to give his family name. “When you know a person well you just can’t believe they could have done something like this.”
Reuters contributed to this report.