'Police aren't to blame for failing to nab suspect sooner'

French foreign minister says there was no way of knowing al-Qaida-affiliated man was tied to attacks that left 7 dead before Jewish school massacre; authorities deny reports that suspect was taken into custody.

French police block street in Toulouse 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Pascal Parrot)
French police block street in Toulouse 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Pascal Parrot)

There was no way French security forces could have arrested the man believed to have carried out the fatal shooting at the Jewish school in Toulouse prior to the attack, said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe during a visit to Israel on Wednesday.

"It's true that there are lists of people who may be suspect in such events because of their ties to terror groups," Juppe 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."

Speaking to press at the French Ambassador's Residence in Jaffa, the minister praised French security forces saying they did everything they could to speedily arrest the suspect believed to have committed the "acts of barbarism" at Ozar Hatorah which left four people - a teacher, his two children and another child - dead.

"The minute after the attack the government gave immediate orders to act," he was quoted as saying by his translator. "There was a maximum security alert. The aim of the investigation was clear: to reach the suspect as soon as possible and we see its success because this morning the man was found -if my information is correct- and has barricaded himself in an apartment in Toulouse."

Juppe said he wanted to avoid speculation over whether the events of the past few days will affect the campaigns for the presidential and parliamentary elections set to be held later in the year. He also chose not to answer a question relating to whether the shootings in and near Toulouse had any relation to French foreign policy in Afghanistan.

The French Foreign Minister said he was dispatched to Israel at the behest of French President Nicolas Sarkozy on a mission of solidarity with the Jewish people and Israel.

"France is determined to fight terrorism using all of its resources and I would like to express solidarity with Israel which has dealt with, is dealing with and will probably continue to deal with the horrors of terrorism," he said.

The suspected gunman was still holed up in a residential building after a 12-hour police siege in the city of Toulouse, France 24 reported Wednesday. The television station cited the French Interior Ministry denying reports that the gunman had been arrested. In an unfolding drama that riveted France and the world, about 300 police, some in body armor, had cordoned off a four-story building in a suburb of Toulouse where the 24-year-old Muslim shooter, identified as Mohamed Merah, had been holed up.

French police block street in Toulouse (Reuters)French police block street in Toulouse (Reuters)

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman was a French citizen of Algerian origin who had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan and had told police negotiators he had carried out his attacks to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army's involvement in Afghanistan.

Authorities in Afghanistan confirmed that Merah had been arrested for bomb making in the lawless southern province of Kandahar in 2007 but escaped months later in a massive Taliban prison break.

Police removed other residents from the building and began evacuating other nearby homes. A police source had said earlier that authorities would not allow the siege to drag on indefinitely.

Gueant said Merah, who had been under surveillance since the attack on the first soldiers last week, wanted revenge "for Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention."

He told journalists Merah was a member of an ideological Islamic group in France but this organisation was not involved in plotting any violence.

He said Merah had thrown a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out of a window of the block of flats in exchange for a mobile phone, but was still armed.

Police sources said they had conducted a controlled explosion of the suspect's car at around 9:00 a.m. after discovering it was loaded with weapons.

Merah's girlfriend and brother, also known to authorities as a radical Islamist, have also been arrested, officials said.

Suspect tracked down through IP address

Gueant said Merah had contacted the first soldier he attacked under the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle.

Investigators identified the 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.

The telephone of the man and his family was tapped from Monday and with the help of other information the police decided to raid his house. Merah has a criminal record in France, Gueant said, but nothing indicating such an attack was possible.

A police source told Reuters that investigators had also received a tipoff from a scooter repair shop in Toulouse where the gunman asked to change the colour of the Yamaha scooter used to flee the shootings and to remove a GPS tracker device.

A group of young men from Merah's neighborhood described him as a polite man of slight build who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious.

"He isn't the big bearded guy that you can imagine, you know the cliche," 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."

In Jerusalem, the victims from the Ozar Hatorah school were laid to rest on Wednesday morning. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said in his eulogy at the Givat Shaul cemetery that the attack was inspired by "wild animals with hatred in their hearts."

Authorities said on Tuesday that the gunman had apparently filmed his rampage through the school. He wounded Rabbi Jonathan Sandler as he entered the building, then shot an 8-year-old girl in the head, before returning to kill Sandler and his two children, who had rushed to his side, at point blank range.