French gunman's brother questioned

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

The brother of an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who murdered seven people was brought to Paris today for further questioning and a police source disclosed he had said he was "proud" of his late sibling's killing spree.

President Nicolas Sarkozy summoned ministers and police chiefs to a meeting today to discuss the consequences of Mohamed Merah's massacre, which has raised troubling national security questions four weeks ahead of a presidential election.

Mr Sarkozy is facing an uphill re-election battle and his chief intelligence adviser sought to head off media questions about the handling of the affair in the southwest city of Toulouse.

Abdelkader Merah, elder brother of the 23-year-old gunman who died in a hail of police gunfire on Thursday, was taken by car from police barracks in Toulouse for transfer to the capital, along with his wife, a judicial source said.

Both were arrested on Tuesday as negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade Merah to turn himself in. Merah's mother, who was also arrested that day, was likely to be released later today, according to the same source.

Merah was killed by a sniper after a gunbattle with police that ended a more than 30-hour siege at his Toulouse apartment, during which he admitted killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three soldiers in three separate attacks.

Abdelkader Merah and his wife, whose name was not given, were transferred to a detention centre at the headquarters of the DCRI domestic intelligence agency in Paris and will be brought before a judge to decide whether there were grounds for opening legal proceedings over possible links with Mohamed Merah's attacks, another source said yesterday.

Police have found explosives in a car Abdelkader owned, according to the public prosecutor leading the case. He was already known to security services for having helped smuggle jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007.

A police source said today that at a closed hearing in Toulouse he had declared himself "proud" of his brother's killings and had admitted helping Mohamed steal the scooter used in all seven murders. He had denied any knowledge of his brother's murderous plans, however, the source added.

DCRI head Bernard Squarcini told the daily Le Monde yesterdaythat there was no evidence Merah belonged to any radical Islamist network and that he appeared to have turned fanatic alone.Yet investigators are still trying to establish whether the young Frenchman of Algerian extraction had any logistical or ideological support or really was a genuine "lone wolf".

Merah's brother, and a sister, were known to have studied the Koran in Egypt in 2010 and French police had in the past found links between them and a radical Islamist group based in southern France led by a Syrian-born Frenchman dubbed "The White Emir" by French media because of his fair hair and beard.

The shootings shifted the focus of political debate away from France's economic woes and played to the strengths of Mr Sarkozy as he fights for re-election in a two-round vote in April and May.

Polls show that about two-thirds of voters approved of his handling of the Toulouse crisis, which reduced his challengers, chief among them Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande, to the role of bystander.

Mr Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, Ange Mancini, sought to head off increasing media debate about whether Merah could have been stopped before he started killing, saying the intelligence and police services had done an "exemplary" job and that it was always easy to ask after the fact if there were flaws.

"Obviously the aim now will be to dig deeper, not just to know more about the case in question, but to see whether there are other lessons, to try to identify whether anyone else might be heading down the same road," Mr Mancini told news channel BFM TV.

Foreign minister Alain Juppe said earlier this week that the question of any possible failings would have to be clarified in due course."I have a lot of respect for Alain Juppe but he is not an intelligence and intervention specialist," Mr Mancini said.

An opinion poll released today appeared to contradict the idea that national security had shot to the top of the agenda for voters despite a week when national and international media provided round-the-clock coverage of the killings and the siege that culminated with a dramatic shootout and death of Merah.

The Ifop polling agency said 53 percent of people believed France faced a high risk of terrorist attack. It was the lowest worry score recorded since Ifop started sounding people out on the issue at the time of the suicide airliner attacks in the United States in 2001, when the number who perceived a high risk of terror attack was 78 per cent, according to IFOP.