French police laid siege Wednesday to an apartment block where a self-declared Al-Qaeda militant who has claimed a series of deadly attacks on troops and Jewish children was holed up.
Prosecutors said suspect Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, had fought off several police assaults on his flat and bragged to negotiators of having been trained by Al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims and even boasted of having brought France to its knees,” France’s top anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.
Molins said Merah had claimed responsibility for three cold-blooded shootings over the previous 10 days in which three French paratroopers, three Jewish children and a teacher were killed, shocking the nation.
But he said he was not seeking to be a martyr and would give himself up later. He claimed to be avenging Palestinian deaths and opposing the French military’s involvement in Afghanistan and France’s ban on full-face veils.
Molins said the suspect had shot and wounded two elite officers after police first raided the apartment building in the southwestern city of Toulouse before dawn.
“Mohamed Merah explained that he belonged to Al-Qaeda. He explained he had been trained by Al-Qaeda in the Pakistani-Afghanistan region in Waziristan,” Molins told reporters in Toulouse, scene of two of the shootings.
Waziristan is a tribal area straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border which is known as a haven for Islamist insurgents — including Al-Qaeda militants — connected to Taliban guerrillas fighting in both countries.
Molins said the suspect had gone to the region twice using his own resources and on one occasion had been arrested by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.
“He said he does not have a suicidal spirit, he did not have a martyr’s soul, he preferred to kill and remain alive,” said Molins, adding that the killer had claimed to have always acted alone.
Police and prosecutors said they had arrested Merah’s mother, brother and his brother’s girlfriend as part of the inquiry. Sources said the suspect had been known to the domestic security service for some years.
After the failed police assault on the first floor flat in Toulouse where Merah was living, the two sides settled down to an armed siege. After nine hours other residents were evacuated from the building.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in an April-May vote, told religious representatives at a meeting in a police station near the siege site that the gunman had planned to carry out another attack Wednesday.
Sarkozy said later that the killer had wanted to “bring France to its knees”, but had failed, and said he would likewise fail in his attempt to divide the country.
Molins told reporters that Merah had chosen two Toulouse policemen to target for assassination and planned to kill another soldier.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the suspect was thought to be armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol and other handguns, but had thrown out a .45 pistol used in the seven murders.
The siege came as the Jewish victims of the attacks were buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were being laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
If the suspect is proved responsible for the killings, it would bring to an end one of the most intense manhunts in French history and help calm tensions after the series of attacks disrupted the presidential election.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter which the veteran NCO had advertised online.
A message sent from the suspect’s brother’s IP address was used to set up an appointment to inspect the bike, an appointment at which paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten was subsequently killed, a police source said.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down, two of them fatally, in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban.
The pair — Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, — were also French soldiers of North African Arab origin.
Then on Monday the shooter, again wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego were buried Wednesday in Givat Shaul cemetery on the western outskirts of Jerusalem.
Sarkozy and several rival candidates for the presidency attended a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers at their barracks in Montauban.
“A French soldier knows death and knows how to look it in the face, but the death our men met was not the death for which they were prepared. It was not death on the field of battle but a terrorist execution,” he said.
“If our communities were chosen as targets, it was soldiers, children and French citizens who were murdered,” Sarkozy said at the solemn service in the base of the 17th Parachute Engineering Regiment.
(French police near the suspected Islamist gunman’s residence in Toulouse, southwestern France, where members of the RAID special police forces unit attempted to arrest him. French police laid siege to an apartment block where a self-declared Al-Qaeda militant who claimed a series of deadly attacks on troops and Jewish children was holed up. AFP Photo/Remy Gabalda)