Police raided the French school gunman’s home as he was poised to carry out another series of shootings, a prosecutor said.
Meanwhile Mohamed Merah remained holed up in his ground floor Toulouse flat, surrounded by scores of armed police, after an early morning attempt to capture him ended in a gun battle and stalemate.
Merah, wanted for killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a wave of attacks in southern France, is a 24-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin said to have been to Afghanistan twice and trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan.
Toulouse prosecutor Francois Molins said the gunman’s brother had also been implicated in a network sending fighters to Iraq.
Mr Molins said Merah had been about to kill another soldier when the police raid was launched.
The French Interior Ministry admitted he had been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” views, yet he was still able to carry out a string of ruthless murders.
Three police have already been wounded trying to arrest Merah, who shot at them through the door of his flat before they retreated and the siege began.
The police raid was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. It began after France’s worst-ever school shooting on Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers, killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for the French presidential election starting next month.
Merah is in contact with the police and has told them he belonged to al Qaida and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant added the man was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
“He’s after the army,” Mr Gueant said.
Merah of threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a radio to talk to police, but has more weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle.
Police swept in soon after 3am on the residential neighbourhood in Toulouse where Merah lived. At one point, volleys of gunfire were exchanged.
He promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, then stopped talking to negotiators. In the early afternoon, he resumed talking.
“The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials,” Mr Gueant said, explaining they wanted to “take him alive ... It is imperative for us.”
Merah’s mother, brother and a companion of the brother have been detained for questioning.
A key to tracking Merah was the powerful Yamaha scooter that he has used in all three attacks – a dark grey one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the colour witnesses saw in the school attack.
One of his brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The dealer then contacted police.