French PM defends killings probe

French PM defends killings probe

France’s prime minister has rejected suggestions that anti-terrorism authorities fell down on the job in monitoring a radical Islamist who gunned down seven people in a wave of killings that revolted the country.

Investigators were questioning Mohamed Merah’s brother as they search for possible accomplices.

Prime minister Francois Fillon said president Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government is working on new anti-terrorism legislation that would be drafted within two weeks.

Merah, who claimed allegiance to al Qaida and had spent time in prison, died yesterday during a gunfight with police following a 32-hour siege outside his apartment in the south-western city of Toulouse. He was a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin.

French intelligence services had been aware of Merah’s trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s militant stronghold of Waziristan in recent years, and he had been on a US no-fly list since 2010.

Some politicians, French media and Toulouse residents questioned why authorities did not stop him before March 11, when he committed the first of three deadly shooting attacks.

Even French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said there needed to be “clarity” on why he was not arrested earlier.

The daily Liberation listed seven questions about the case on its front page today, including “Why wasn’t Merah monitored more?”

Fillon said that authorities “at no moment” suspected Merah would be dangerous despite a long criminal record.

“The fact of belonging to a Salafist (ultraconservative Muslim) organisation is not unto itself a crime. We must not mix religious fundamentalism and terrorism, even if naturally we well know the links that unite the two,” Fillon said.

Three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers died in France’s worst Islamist terrorist violence since a wave of attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. Merah told negotiators he killed them to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan as well as France’ law against the Islamic face veil.

Cathy Fontaine, 43, who runs a beauty salon down the street from the building where Merah was killed, said France should have a “zero tolerance” policy for people who seek out training in Afghanistan and potentially refuse to let them back in the country.

“An individual who goes to be trained in Afghanistan, you have to follow him,” she said.

Families of the victims, meanwhile, were frustrated that Merah was not taken alive.

“Imad’s parents feel that the justice they were expecting was stolen from them,” said lawyer Mehana Mouhou, lawyer for the family of the first paratrooper killed, Imad Ibn-Ziaten. “His mother wanted an answer to the question, ’why did he kill my son?”’

The lawyer also questioned why hours of negotiations between police and Merah failed on Wednesday. Merah repeatedly promised to surrender, then eventually changed his mind.

“They could have very well not killed him. There were no hostages. The neighbours were evacuated,” Mouhou said.

The chief of France’s elite RAID police unit, which conducted the operation, told Le Monde that Merah was probably killed by a sniper. He said the gunman had been waiting “like a fighter, with an unflagging determination.”

“We tried to exhaust him all night before retaking the apartment,” said Amaury de Hauteclocque.

His commandos slipped into the apartment but Merah was waiting for them, standing in 30 centimetres (a foot) of water after a pipe burst when it was pierced by a bullet during the first assault, the report said.

“I’d given the order to only fire back with stun grenades. But as he moved through the apartment he tried to kill my men who were on the balcony. It’s probably one of the snipers that got him,” he said.

He said 15 men had taken part in the assault, with 60-odd people participating in the entire operation.

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