Toulouse Siege Over Minister Confirms Terror Suspect Merah Is Dead

The man thought to be responsible for killing seven in a murder spree in southern France is dead, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant confirmed on Thursday. Mohamed Merah, who claimed he belonged to al-Qaida, had brought the country to a near standstill after killing three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school.

French police during the seige in Toulouse.
DPA

French police during the seige in Toulouse.


Terror suspect Mohamed Merah, who is believed responsible for the killings of seven people in recent days, is dead, following a prolonged siege of his apartment in Toulouse. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant confirmed the death around noon on Thursday.

Police raided the building mid-morning Thursday after a 30-hour standoff. Reuters reported that gunfire rang out for four minutes and explosions were heard during the raid.

There had been no new signs of life since late in the night, and Interior Minister Guéant had speculated earlier on Thursday that the man, who had been holed up in his apartment for more than 24 hours, might be dead. Guéant told French radio station RTL he "hoped" that 23-year-old Mohamed Merah was still alive. But he said there had been no further contact during the night with the man. The suspected terrorist, a French citizen of Algerian decent, didn't respond to several explosions during the night. Guéant had called the lack of reaction "weird."

The suspect had earlier said he wanted "to die weapons in hand". Two shots were fired in the night, but it was unclear where they originated. Reporters also confirmed that shots had been heard at 2 a.m. local time.

For more than a day, hundreds of heavily armed police had been camped out at the building where the suspected Toulouse killer had barricaded himself. They had cut off gas and electricity to the apartment. BMF-TV reported that between five and six detonations were set off by officials in the early hours of Thursday morning in order to blow open windows and doors to the apartment.

On Wednesday, French elite police tried several times in vain to gain entry into the apartment. Each time, they were driven back by gunfire. One police officer suffered a gunshot wound to his knee and another only managed to escape serious injury because he was wearing bullet-proof protective gear.

At the start of the police deployment, the man fired at police with automatic weapons he had been storing in his apartment. At least two were injured. Later, the suspect exchanged a Colt .45 handgun with police for a telephone. It is believed the gun may have been the one used to kill seven people in a wave of murders in the Toulouse area in the past week. Police say the suspect admitted to them by phone that he had been planning a further attack on Wednesday against a soldier, and that he also wanted to kill two police officers.

Prosecutors Believe Merah Acted Alone

Several people in some way connected to Merah have been detained and questioned by police, including both his sisters and brothers and his mother. A brother is believed to be a supporter of the Islamist extremist Salafist movement, and his mother has also long been under observation because of her apparent ties to radical Salafists, Interior Minister Guéant said. But he also emphasized his belief that the perpetrator had acted alone. Merah himself had already long been under the observation of French intelligence services.

Police believe that Merah killed three soldiers last week and then four people, including three children, at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.

The chief Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, confirmed that Merah had twice traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but that he had shown an "atypical self-radicalizing Salafist profile." Merah apparently used his own resources and not those of known networks to travel to Afghanistan. He also claimed to have been provided with training by al-Qaida in Waziristan in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.

Interior Minister Guéant told French TV station TF1 that, following his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Merah had been questioned in November 2011 in Toulouse by the French domestic intelligence service. Merah claimed he had traveled to the region as a tourist and sought to back up his claim with photos.

Merah Said He Wanted To Kill More

In his talks with police, the man reportedly expressed regret over not having killed more people, prosecutor Molins told reporters, and that he had prided himself on bringing the country to its knees. Investigators said police had found a scooter the suspect may have used in perpetrating his crimes as well as a camera which may have been used to film them. They are still searching for a car in which they believe weapons and explosives had been stored.

Merah said he had acted alone in perpetrating the crimes. "He has no regrets," said Molins. Both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Interior Ministrer Guéant said they wanted to capture Merah alive so that he could be tried in court. Sarkozy also warned against thoughts of revenge or mixing religion and brutal extremism.

Merah's attorney, Christian Etelin, has denied rumors that his client spent time in jail during his stay in Afghanistan. Etelin did state, however, that Merah had served time in a French prison between December 2007 and September 2009 after being convicted for armed robbery. He said it was impossible he could have served time in Afghanistan during his prison term. The office of the governor of Kandahar province in Afghanistan also rejected claims Merah had spent time in jail there. "The security forces in Kandahar never arrested a French citizen named Mohamed Merah," said a spokesman for the governor's office.

Meanwhile, Ebba Kalondo, a reporter at French international TV broadcaster France 24, has said she received a telephone call by a man she believes to have been Merah shortly before police converged on his apartment. The reporter claims Merah called the broadcaster and claimed responsibility for the killings. Kalondo said she believed the call had been authentic because Merah provided very precise information about the crimes. She said his French had been elegant and that he had been polite and consistently addressed her as "Madame".

In neighboring Germany, where societal concerns about homegrown Islamist extremism also run deep, the developments in Toulouse have also dominated the headlines and news broadcasts.

dsl -- with wires

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