As Mohammed Merah’s stand-off with French police came to a climax late last night, French television released a picture of the gunman wanted for shooting seven people.
Three explosions were heard last night as French police began their assault on the home of the gunman wanted for shooting seven people dead.
Mohammed Merah, who killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers, had said he would turn himself in at night “to be more discreet”.
However, after authorities turned off street lights surrounding his apartment, three blasts were heard outside Merah’s flat, suggesting the raid on the ground-floor dwelling had begun.
Toulouse’s deputy mayor confirmed that the assault on the flat has begun.
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.
Earlier yesterday, he threw a Colt .45 handgun used in 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 François Molins said.
Merah was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch the 3am raid, Molins said.
The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early today. 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 Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Claude Guéant, France’s interior minister said, adding the gunman was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
“He wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Guéant told reporters. “He’s [also] after the army.”
The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in yesterday, then halted negotiations.
Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were prepared to storm the building.
The chase began after France’s worst-ever school shooting on Monday and two attacks on paratroopers beginning on Mar 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the 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,” said Sarkozy before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed in Montauban, near Toulouse.
Sarkozy’s office said president Barack Obama called him to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect.
The statement said France and the US are “more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together”.
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,” Molins said, adding he had 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, Molins added.
The police raid was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists.
After bouts of 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 Sept 11 attacks.
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