French police say gunman was planning more attacks

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 00:00

The gunman suspected of killing seven people in southwest France plans to turn himself in to French police surrounding him at night “to be more discreet,” the French interior minister Claude Guéant said this evening.

Street lights have been switched off in the vicinity of the apartment in Toulouse where the gunman has been holed up since an early morning raid during which three policemen were wounded in gunfire.

Authorities believe he had planned to kill another soldier and two police officials before he was surrounded by police today.

Police have threatened to storm the apartment where the man - named as Mohamed Merah (24) - is hiding.

According to our correspondent on the scene Ruadhan Mac Cormaic, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the beseiged gunman "wanted to bring France to its knees".

Police reinforcements arrived at the scene at around 9pm Irish time when the street lights were switched off.

"This will not last for days, because of physical and mental fatigue. All the experience with crazed gunmen like this is that they stop at some point," French defence minister Gerard Longuet told TF1 television tonight.

"What we want is to capture him alive, so that we can bring him to justice, know his motivations and hopefully find out who were his accomplices, if there were any," he added.

Thomas Withington at the London Centre for Defence Studies said an elite commando team could launch an assault after throwing a stun grenade into the house.

"What complicates things is that they want to take him alive. They want to wait until he gets very tired," he said

Merah told police his only regret was not having been able to carry out his plans for more killings.

"He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees," said Mr Molins

"He has explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr and that he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself."

Mr Molins said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, had told police negotiators he had received training from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He said Merah has also claimed responsibility for the killings of three soldiers of North African origin last week and four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.

Claude Guéant earlier denied media reports that Merah had been arrested.

There were also conflicting reports that Merah may have escaped from prison during a mass jailbreak in the Afghan area of Kandahar after being sentenced to three years for planting bombs in Kandahar city.

Afghan officials said today that a man by the same name had indeed escaped then, but was a citizen of Afghanistan, not France.

They said that a Mohammad Merah was arrested on December 19, 2007, and convicted of planting bombs in and around the southern city of Kandahar, which is the area where the Taliban movement began.

"All I can say is that we have this guy Mohammed Merah in our records, but he's an Afghan citizen," said Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar province. "He's certainly not French."

He was sent to serve his three-year sentence at the city's Saraposa prison, said Ghulam Faruq, the chief of the detention facility, citing prison records. That is a high-security prison on Kandahar's southern outskirts."

The Afghan Merah escaped on June 13, 2008, when a Taliban fighter drove a fuel tanker to the gates of Saraposa, jumped out, dodged a few bullets fired by the prison guards, and then from a distance launched a rocket-propelled grenade into his vehicle. The enormous explosion killed the guards and blew a huge hole in the prison's walls, allowing about 900 prisoners to escape.

About 300 police, many in bullet-proof armour, have cordoned off the area around the house in Toulouse. Residents of the surrounding area have been evacuated on buses.

Witnesses at the scene heard several shots at about 4.40am. The gunman threw a pistol from the window of the house this morning, but it still believed to have an Uzi machine gun, a Kalashnikov assault rifle and other weapons.

Merah promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, then stopped talking to negotiators.

A police source said that authorities would not allow the siege to drag on indefinitely.

Mr Gueant said Merah had made several visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had said that he was acting out of revenge for France's military involvement overseas. "He wanted revenge for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to take revenge on the French army because of its foreign interventions."

He admitted Merah had been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” views.

The same Colt 45 handgun was used in all three attacks and in each case the gunman arrived on a Yamaha scooter with his face hidden by a motorcycle helmet.

Mr Gueant did not say how they had tracked the man down, but that police were talking to his brother at a separate location in connection to the killings. He was reportedly identified through an email sent to his first victim about buying a scooter. The man is also understood to have sought out a garage in Toulouse to have his Yamaha scooter repainted after the first two attacks.

Police sources said that a man - understood to be Merah's brother - had been arrested earlier today at a separate location in connection with the killings. The suspect's mother was earlier brought to the scene but Mr Guéant said she had refused to become involved as "she had little influence on him".

President Nicolas Sarkozy said today France should not give in to a desire for revenge or discrimination over the killings. "We must be united. We must give in neither to discrimination nor revenge," he told reporters in a brief statement at the Elysée presidential palace. "I have brought together the Jewish and Muslim communities to show that terrorism will not manage to break our nation's feeling of community."

The killings come just five weeks before the first round of France's presidential elections in which immigration and Islam have been major themes as Mr Sarkozy seeks to win over voters from far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism.

The bodies of the four victims of the school shooting arrived in Israel this morning and were buried in Jerusalem.

Agencies