Police begin assault on besieged flat of suspected French killer


FRENCH POLICE started an assault late last night on the apartment of a gunman suspected of killing seven people in southwest France in the name of al-Qaeda, officials said.

Three loud blasts were heard at the four-storey building in Toulouse just before midnight, which blew open the door of the apartment where the gunman had been holed up since 3am, a police source said.

“I confirm that the assault has started, a police source said. Toulouse’s deputy mayor Jean-Pierre Havrin confirmed negotiations had ended and the assault had begun.

Police had been trying to get 24-year-old Mohamed Merah to surrender after he fired through the door at them while they tried to storm his apartment in the suburbs of Toulouse early on Wednesday.

The gunman had planned further attacks and earlier boasted of having brought the country “to its knees”.

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.

He had planned to kill his next targets – another soldier and two police officers – as early as yesterday, said public prosecutor François Molins.

“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people, and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy called for national unity as the drama unfolded, but a tentative political truce was broken when Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, said it was time to “wage war” on Islamist groups that had flourished due to a lax government.

Police had raided the apartment in Toulouse at 3am, but after a firefight that left two officers injured they retreated and began negotiating with the suspect. Merah’s mother and brother were arrested after separate raids elsewhere in the city.

Interior minister Claude Guéant said Merah had come to the attention of the intelligence service after he took two trips to Afghanistan in recent years, and was interviewed last November. Merah, who has a criminal record for relatively minor offences, was identified as the chief suspect on Tuesday and placed under surveillance before the authorities decided to carry out a night-time raid involving 300 officers.

Police closed off access to the quiet residential street in the Cote Pavée neighbourhood and escorted about 50 residents from Merah’s building to safety. Negotiations continued throughout the day, and the suspect at one point threw a Colt 45 pistol of the kind used in all the shootings out the window in exchange for a mobile phone. Police said he had indicated he would give himself up.

The dramatic events followed one of the largest manhunts in modern French history and the raising of the terror alert to its highest ever level.

The killings of three children, as well as a teacher and three soldiers, shocked the country and led the main candidates for the presidency to suspend their campaigns and rush to Toulouse. The killings and the state’s response are expected to dominate the campaign in the four weeks before voting begins.

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.