France siege suspect Merah dead


French interior minister Claude Guéant has confirmed that shooting suspect Mohammed Merah was killed during a police raid on the Toulouse apartment where he had been surrounded for over a day.

Mr Guéant said Merah died when he jumped out a window after opening fire on police officers. Gunfire and explosions signalled the start of the raid at about 9.30am, witnesses and officials said.

Assault rifle and lighter calibre gunfire rang out for around four minutes, and explosions were also heard, as special forces sought to capture Merah, and an official said that gas was also used to try and paralyse him.

Merah is the chief suspect in the investigation into the killings of three French soldiers and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse. He told police negotiators he had carried out the killings to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Police had been trying to get him to surrender after he fired through the door at them while they tried to storm his apartment in the suburbs of Toulouse early yesterday.

Over 300 police and emergency services were at the building in a suburb of the prosperous industrial city of Toulouse where Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, was surrounded in the siege that ended after some 32 hours.

"At the moment when a video probe was sent into the bathroom, the killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence" Mr Guéant said.

Mr Guéant said Merah was firing several guns at once. "In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped from the window with his gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground," he told reporters at the scene. Two police commandos were wounded," he said.

He was firing frantically at police from a Colt 45 pistol as he climbed through his apartment window onto a verandah and toppled to the ground some 5 feet (1.5 metres) below, according to prosecutors and police.

Merah died from a gunshot wound to the head.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah had taken refuge in his bathroom, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his traditional black djellaba robe, as elite police blasted his flat through the night with flash grenades.

Police investigators were working to establish whether Merah had worked alone or with accomplices, Molins said, adding that Merah had filmed his three shooting attacks with a camera hung from his body and had indicated that he had posted clips online.

The most disturbing image of the attacks showed him grabbing a young girl at a Jewish school on Monday by the hair and shooting her in the head before escaping on a scooter.

The killings have raised questions about whether there were intelligence failures, what the attacks mean for social cohesion and race relations in France and how the aftermath will affect President Nicolas Sarkozy's slim chances of re-election.

Mr Sarkozy called Merah's killings terrorist attacks and announced a crackdown on people following extremist websites."From now on, any person who habitually consults websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hate and violence will be punished," he said in a statement.

"France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil."

Elite Raid commandos had been in a standoff since the early hours of yesterday with Merah, periodically firing shots or deploying small explosives until mid-morning today to try and tire out the gunman so he could be captured alive.

Merah had been silent and motionless for 12 hours when the commandos opted to go inside.

Initially, he had fired through his front door at police when they swooped on his flat on Wednesday morning, but later he negotiated with police, promising to give himself up and saying he did not want to die.

By late Wednesday evening, he changed tack again, telling negotiators he wanted to die "like a Mujahideen", weapon in hand, and would not go to prison, Molins said.

"If it's me (who dies), too bad, I will go to paradise. If it's you, too bad for you," Molins quoted Merah as saying.

Merah told negotiators he was trained by al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

In the video recording of his shooting of the soldiers, which has been viewed by prosecutors, Merah cried: "If you kill my brothers, I kill you".

Merah had staked out the first soldier he killed after replying to an advert about a scooter, investigators said yesterday, and had identified another soldier and two police officers he wanted to kill.

His use of his mother's computer to lure his first victim, a French soldier of North African heritage like himself, gave police a vital clue, but not in time to prevent the other killings, even though he had taken the scooter to a mechanic for a respray before the final attack on Monday.

Mr Sarkozy's handling of the crisis could well impact an election race where for months he has lagged behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls.

Early today, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Mr Sarkozy two points ahead of Mr Hollande in the first-round vote on April 22nd, although Mr Hollande still led by eight points for a May 6 run-off.

Merah has a police record for several minor offences, some involving violence, and was on the radar of French intelligence, but Mr Gueant has said there was no evidence he had been planning radical murders.

The Memri Middle East think tank said he may belong to a French al-Qaeda branch called Fursan Al-Izza, ideologically aligned with a movement to Islamise Western states by implementing sharia law, but Mr Gueant said there was no evidence he formally belonged to any fundamentalist group.

Friends spoke of him as an amateur soccer player, not outwardly religious and fond of night clubs.

Merah, who had a weapons cache in his flat that included an Uzi and Kalashnikov assault rifle, boasted to police negotiators that he had brought France to its knees, and that his only regret was not having been able to carry out more killings.

On Thursday, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen accused Mr Sarkozy's government of surrendering swathes of often impoverished suburban districts to Islamic fanatics, demanding that the last month of pre-election debate put the focus back on failing security.

Leaders of the Muslim and Jewish communities said the killer was a lone extremist and called for calm. At a memorial ceremony for the soldiers, who were of North African and Caribbean origin, Mr Sarkozy said the country must not yield to discrimination or vengeance. “France can only be great in unity. We owe it ... to all the victims,” he said.

Additional reporting: Reuters