French police move in on gunman in siege
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) – Police stormed the apartment on Thursday of a 23-year-old gunman suspected of killing seven people in southwestern France in the name of al Qaeda, setting off explosions and firing shots to try to force him to surrender.
“They are in the apartment, they are using gas to try to paralyze him,” said Nicole Yardeni, local head of Jewish umbrella group CRIF, who is in contact with security officials, shortly before the gunfire was heard.
Police had besieged Mohamed Merah in his apartment in a suburb of Toulouse for around 30 hours before moving in. French media said he was dead but there was no official confirmation.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said police hoped to capture Merah, who had confessed to police negotiators to killing three soldiers as well as three Jewish children and a rabbi at a school, alive.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose already slim chances of beating off a Socialist challenger in next month’s presidential election may be affected by his handling of the crisis, has vowed justice will be done and urged people not to seek revenge.
Early on Thursday, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Sarkozy would narrowly beat Socialist Francois Hollande in the first-round vote. [ID:nL6E8ELAZP] But Hollande was seen at eight percentage points ahead in the second round.
There had been a long silence overnight from Merah, who said he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and French army involvement in Afghanistan.
“Despite renewed efforts all through the night to reestablish contact by voice and radio, there has been no contact, no showing from him,” Gueant said.
A police source said that the lack of activity picked up by night vision goggles could merely mean that Merah was merely asleep but time was pressing to investigate. “At some point soon we’ll have to go in and see,” the source said.
Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin who had been under intelligence surveillance for years, shot at police as they closed in on him in the early hours of Wednesday and later boasted to negotiators that he had brought France to its knees.
He said his only regret was not having been able to carry out more killings.
Merah has a police record for several minor offences, some involving violence, but Gueant has said there was no evidence he had been planning radical murders.
He filmed the shootings of the children and the rabbi on Monday using a camera strapped to him.
France’s elite RAID commando unit detonated three explosions just before midnight on Wednesday, flattening the main door of the building and blowing a hole in the wall, after it became clear Merah did not mean to keep a promise to turn himself in.
They continued to fire shots roughly every hour, and stepped up the pace at dawn with two loud explosions that sounded like grenades. Analysts said police were attempting to exhaust the gunman and make him easier to capture unharmed.
“These were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender,” said interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet. The ministry, which initially gave his age as 24 but then said he was still 23, said it could not confirm whether or not he had died.
Merah, who authorities say has a weapons cache in the apartment including an Uzi and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, wounded two officers on Wednesday.
“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,” Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told TF1 television.
Merah, who told police negotiators he had accepted a mission from al Qaeda after receiving training in the lawless border area of Pakistan, had identified another soldier and two police officers he wanted to kill, investigators said on Wednesday.
“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference .
The gunman negotiated with police all Wednesday, promising to give himself up and saying that he did not want to die.
“He’s explained that he’s not suicidal, he doesn’t have the soul of a martyr and he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” the prosecutor said.
SARKOZY UNDER SPOTLIGHT
At a ceremony on Wednesday, Sarkozy paid tribute to the three soldiers of North African origin killed last week. “This man wanted to bring the Republic to its knees. The Republic did not give in, the Republic did not back down,” he said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag.
He said the men had been killed in a “terrorist execution”. Merah had staked out the first soldier he killed after replying to an advert about a scooter, according to investigators.
Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how people vote in the two-round presidential election on April 22 and May 6.
On Thursday, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival candidate, accused Sarkozy’s government of surrendering swathes of France’s 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 Jewish and Muslim communities have called for calm, pointing out the gunman was a lone extremist.
Immigration and Islam have been major campaign themes after Sarkozy tried to win over supporters of Le Pen, who accused the government of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.
France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election. Hollande, who leads Sarkozy in polls for the crucial May 6 runoff vote, has said he will pull troops out by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.
The raid came just three days after the school attack and followed an unprecedented manhunt by French security forces.
Merah’s lawyer Christian Etelin, who has defended him in several minor crimes, said that his client had a tendency towards violence that had worsened after a stay in prison and trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“There was his religious engagement, an increasing hatred against the values of a democratic society and a desire to impose what he believes is truth,” Etelin told France 2 television.
(Additional reporting by Jean Decotte and Nick Vinocur in Toulouse; writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Philippa Fletcher)