The chief suspect in an al Qaida-linked killing spree who is holed up in an apartment wants to “die with weapons in his hands”, according to France’s interior minister.
Claude Gueant said officials authorities are still hoping to take him alive, although they have not had contact with the man since last night.
Hundreds of French police have surrounded the apartment since the early hours of Wednesday and are working to try to capture the suspect, Mohamed Merah.
Authorities say Merah has boasted about carrying out the shootings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers.
Yesterday riot police set off explosions outside the five-storey apartment building in Toulouse in an effort to force the surrender of the man who boasted of bringing France “to its knees”.
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.
Authorities said the suspected shooter, a 24-year-old 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.
Suspicions surfaced that the gunman may have already committed suicide.
Two or three gunshots were heard from the area of the apartment building overnight, and Mr Gueant said the source was unclear.
He added this morning that the suspect had not contacted negotiators since last night, and that it was “rather strange that he never reacted” to the detonations overnight.
“We hope that he is still alive,” Mr Gueant said, stressing that authorities’ priority is to capture him alive.
Police were using their advantages – numbers, firepower and psychological pressure – in hopes of wearing down Merah, who has had no water, electricity, gas or most likely sleep since the early hours of Wednesday.
Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah had appeared to toy with police negotiators – first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then under the cover of darkness, reneging on those pledges altogether, officials said.