French police in standoff with possibly Al Qaeda-linked suspect in school shootings
TOULOUSE, France – A gunman claiming Al Qaeda links and suspected in the killings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers barricaded himself in an apartment building Wednesday. He is surrounded by hundreds of police officers and has stopped talking to negotiators.
An early morning police raid to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent erupted into a firefight. Three police officers were wounded, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said. After hours of trying to persuade him to surrender, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out by the roof and fire truck ladders.
The suspect told police he belonged to Al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Gueant said. The suspect also said he was angry about French military intervention abroad, and had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gueant said.
The suspect threw a handgun out a window in exchange for a communications device, but he has more weapons, authorities said. Gueant said weapons had been found in the suspect's car.
An Interior Ministry official identified the suspect as Mohammad Merah, who has been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Police swept in soon after 3 a.m. (0200 GMT; 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday) on the residential neighborhood in northern Toulouse where the suspect was holed up. At one point, volleys of gunfire heard around the neighborhood were exchanged. An elite squad was handling the negotiations.
It was part of a manhunt for a shooter who has killed seven people, including French soldiers and Jewish school children, in three attacks in the Toulouse area. In Monday's attack, the three young children and a rabbi were killed.
A few hours into the raid, Gueant said the suspect "is no longer talking." Earlier, he had promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, Gueant said, without explaining how negotiators were talking with him.
"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," President Nicolas Sarkozy said, calling in a declaration on national television before heading to the funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in nearby Montauban.
The series of attacks -- every four days since March 11 -- began with the killing of another paratrooper in Toulouse.
The interior minister, who was at the scene of the standoff, said the suspect tossed from his window a Colt 45 used in each of the three attacks. He has other weapons, like an AK-47 assault rifle.
"The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials," Gueant said, explaining authorities want to "take him alive ... It is imperative for us."
A judicial official said the suspect's mother, his brother and a companion of the brother were detained for questioning. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
The interior minister had said the suspect's brother "is also engaged in the Salafi ideology," a reference to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
The suspect "said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians," Gueant told reporters, adding that he is "less explicit" about why he killed French paratroopers. The paratroopers were of Muslim and French Caribbean origin, but the interior minister said the suspect told them the ethnic origin has nothing to do with his actions. "He's after the army," Gueant said.
Police, who were still questioning people elsewhere, have followed every lead and hypothesis from Islamist terrorist to a deranged ex-soldier or someone following in the footsteps of Norway's Anders Behring Breivik, the rightist extremist who killed 77 people in a rampage last year.
Sarkozy had said that a "monster" was on the loose in France and vowed to track him down. Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term in upcoming elections. He raised the terror alert in the region to its highest level ever Monday, which put hundreds of reinforcements into the area.
Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said a key to tracking the suspect was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle that he has used in attacks.
Delage confirmed reports that the motorcycle was a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.
According to Delage, one of the suspect's brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.
The shooter has proved to be a meticulous operator. At the site of the second paratrooper killing, police found the clip for the gun used in all three attacks -- but no fingerprints or DNA on it.
Police studied the online communications by the first paratrooper killed. He was shot March 11 after posting an announcement online to sell his motorcycle, the police official said, and investigators believe the gunman responded to the ad and lured the paratrooper into an isolated place to kill him.
The schoolchildren killed, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday. Relatives sobbed inconsolably by the gravesides.
In Paris on Wednesday, a package bomb exploded at the Indonesian Embassy on Wednesday, causing minor damage, but no injuries, police said. The source of the package was unclear. Indonesia's foreign minister said it was too early to say whether there was any link between the mail bomb and an attack on the attacks in southern France.
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