The gunman wanted for shooting seven people dead plans to turn himself in to French police surrounding him at night “to be more discreet,” the Interior Minister says.
Claude Gueant said the suspect, Mohamed Merah, appeared to have acted alone in the killings – but also claimed to authorities that he met al Qaida “chiefs” while travelling in Pakistan last year.
As night fell in France with scores of armed police surrounding his ground floor Toulouse flat, the stand-off moved into its 17th hour.
Three police were wounded as they tried to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent during a raid about 3am the previous night.
Prosecutors have said Merah was a self-taught radical Salafi who had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.
Merah is wanted for killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a wave of attacks in southern France,
He threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out of a window in exchange for a radio to talk to police, but has more weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle.
In negotiations with police, Merah “expresses no regret, only that he didn’t have time to have more victims. And he even bragged, he said, of bringing France to its knees,” prosecutor Francois Molins said.
Merah was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch the 3am raid, Mr Molins said.
The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early today. Mr Molins said the brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
Merah told police he belonged to al-Qaida and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Mr Gueant said, adding the gunman was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
“He wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Mr Gueant told reporters. “He’s (also) after the army.”
The police raid was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France’s worst-ever school shooting on Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers beginning on March 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.
“Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Mr Sarkozy declared today on national television before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed and another injured in Montauban, near Toulouse.
The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in today, then halted negotiations. Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were prepared to storm the building if he did not surrender.
After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France beefed up its legal arsenal – now seen as one of the most effective in Western Europe and a reference for countries including the US after the September 11 attacks.
Mr Sarkozy’s office said President Barack Obama called him today to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect. The statement said France and the United States are “more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together”.
Mr Molins said Merah’s first trip to Afghanistan ended with him being picked up by Afghan police “who turned him over to the American army who put him on the first plane to France”.
“He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier,” Mr Molins said, adding he also planned to attack two police officers. “He claims to have always acted alone.”
Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Mr Molins added.