'He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill' in Toulouse

Thu, Mar 22, 2012, 00:00

THE SOUND of gunshots woke Cédric Lambert just before 5am. His apartment building on rue Sergent Vigné, a residential street in the Côte Pavée neighbourhood, would normally have been perfectly still at that hour. Early yesterday morning, it was surrounded by armed police wearing balaclavas and bulletproof vests. More shots rang out.

The firefight was coming from the door to the apartment just below Cédric’s, where his neighbour had moved in about 10 months ago. “They moved in at the same time and I remember him helping us carry a couch in to the building,” Cédric’s father, Éric, said of the suspect as he waited for his son to be brought to safety.

The decision to mount the raid had been taken late on Tuesday night. Police investigating the killing of three soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children in and around Toulouse over the past two weeks had made a breakthrough earlier in the day. The only information they revealed publicly on the er was that he had been driving a high-powered Yamaha scooter; other than that, they said, progress in the investigation

was slow. In fact, by late morning on Tuesday the police had narrowed their search and identified the location of the chief suspect – a 24-year-old French citizen named Mohamed Merah. After two visits to Afghanistan in recent years, interior minister Claude Guéant said, Merah had been added to a watch-list by France’s domestic intelligence service, the DCRI, although it was through an IP address that he became a suspect in the Toulouse case.

The building at rue Sergent Vigné was placed under surveillance. At 11.30pm on Tuesday, according to public prosecutor François Molins, the order was issued to raid the suspect’s house as well as two other Toulouse addresses where his brother and mother were believed to be living. Some 300 officers would be involved. At the Élysée Palace in Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy would be kept informed by phone through the night.

Merah’s brother and mother were detained without major incident. A second woman was also arrested. But the raid on the suspected killer’s home began badly. According to Molins, he appears to have been waiting for police, foiling their hopes of catching him by surprise with a rapid entry. When officers arrived at the door, he began firing at them. Two were hit in the leg, and after a few more aborted attempts and exchanges of gunfire, the unit retreated and the siege began.

Within a hour, a specially trained negotiator from the RAID, an elite commando unit of the national police, had established contact with Merah.

That line of communication would remain open throughout the day. As daylight broke, a deal was struck: Merah would throw a Colt 45 pistol – of the kind used in all the shootings – out through the window, and in exchange he would be given a mobile phone.

Through the negotiator’s conversation’s with Merah, police filled in many of their unanswered questions. He said he had carried out his attacks to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army’s involvement in Afghanistan. His next target – in an attack planned for yesterday – was another soldier.

“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 Molins, who has overall responsibility for counterterrorism operations in France.

Guéant said Merah had contacted his first victim under the pretext of wanting to buy his motorcycle. Investigators had been sifting through huge amounts of material – seven million phone-call records, 200 interview transcripts and 700 internet connections. But one IP address led to the suspect, whose name had appeared on a list from domestic intelligence. His phone was tapped.

Meanwhile, police had a second lead. A staff member at a Yamaha garage alerted the authorities after a customer had said he wanted to deactivate a GPS tracking device and repaint a scooter. In the first two attacks, the killer drove a black scooter, but when he pulled up outside the Jewish school on Monday, the scooter was white.

Among the onlookers who gathered near the cordoned-off zone in Côte Pavée yesterday were some people who had known Merah since he was a child growing up in the neighbourhood of Les Izards. They described him as a polite man of slight build who liked football and motorbikes and did not seem particularly religious. “He was just a normal guy. Okay, he got into a bit of trouble – small thefts and that – but nothing more serious,” said one young man who gave the name Carl.

“A friend of mine rang me this morning to tell me it was him. I’m shocked. I didn’t even know he lived here . . . The last time I saw him was about two months ago at the mosque. I didn’t talk to him, and we both left straight after prayers.”

“He’s a normal person, like anyone, the sort who would give you a hand when you’re struggling to lift a couch like that,” said Éric Lambert, recalling his encounter with Merah. Just before lunchtime, Cédric Lambert and about 50 other residents of the four-storey apartment block were escorted from the scene, having spent the morning glued to their televisions with their blinds closed on police orders.

Muslim and Jewish leaders joined the hundreds of journalists gathered at the police cordon, urging their compatriots not to stigmatise one community after yesterday’s events. “This doesn’t represent me. It has nothing to do with my religion,” said Mehdi Neder, who is involved with the community in the neighbourhood of Le Mirail, where Merah’s mother lives.

As the stand-off unfolded, police searches took place elsewhere in the city.

Officers recovered a camera, but would not confirm whether this could be a recording device one witness had described seeing strapped to the shooter’s chest as he killed Jonathan Sandler, the 30-year-old rabbi and three children at the Ozar Hatorah school on Monday.

Sandler’s two sons, Gabriel and Arieh, aged four and five, died in that attack, as did seven-year-old Myriam Monsonego, the school principal’s daughter. Each of the victims was shot dead at point blank range.

As news of the raid spread, Sarkozy appeared on the steps of the Élysée and called for national unity. “We must be united. We must give in neither to discrimination nor revenge,” he said. During a later stop-over in Toulouse while en route to a ceremony for the three soldiers who were killed last week, Sarkozy met police chiefs and members of the city’s religious groups.

Around rue Sergent Vigné last night, the police cordon remained in place and hundreds of journalists and onlookers stood by for news. Police cars came and went. Darkness fell, and the neighbourhood fell quiet again. Merah told police he would eventually come out, Molins said. So they waited for him. “He explained that he is not suicidal, that he does not have the soul of a martyr. He prefers to kill but to stay alive himself.”