Riot police set off explosions outside an apartment building in an effort to force the surrender of a gunman who boasted of bringing France “to its knees” with an al-Qaida-linked terror spree that killed seven people.
As the stand-off dragged into a second day, hundreds of heavily armed police, some in body armour, cordoned off the five-story building in Toulouse where the 24-year-old suspect, Mohamed Merah, had been holed up.
Three explosions were heard and orange flashes lit up the night sky near the building.
An Interior Ministry official said the suspect had gone back on a previous decision to turn himself in – and that police blew up the shutters outside the apartment window to pressure him to surrender.
The Toulouse prosecutor, Michel Valet, said: “I cannot confirm that the assault has started. It’s not as simple as that. We are waiting.”
Authorities said the suspected shooter, a French citizen of Algerian descent, had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaida.
They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest against the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.
“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 Francois Molins told a news conference.
The stand-off began when a police attempt at around 3am yesterday to detain Merah erupted into a firefight.
Two police were wounded, triggering on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted into the night.
As darkness fell, police cut electricity and gas to the building, then quietly closed in to wait out the suspect.
Authorities were “counting on his great fatigue and weakening”, said Didier Martinez of the SGP police union, adding the siege could go on for hours.
Street lights were also cut, making Merah more visible to officers with night vision goggles in case of an assault.
French authorities – like others in Europe – have long been concerned about “lone-wolf” attacks by young, internet-savvy militants who self-radicalise online since they are harder to find and track.
Still, it was the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.
Merah espoused a radical brand of Islam and had been to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice and to the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan for training, Mr Molins said.
He said the suspect had plans to kill another soldier, prompting the police raid.
The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early in the day. Mr Molins said the 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq, but was never charged.
The siege was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists.