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Blasts Heard as Police Try to Flush Out Toulouse Suspect

Toulouse Suspect Mohammed Merah
This undated and unlocated frame grab provided by French TV station France 2 shows Mohammed Merah, the man suspected of killing seven people. Source: AP/France 2

A siege by French police at an apartment complex to flush out a man suspected of killing seven people, including three children and a teacher at a Jewish school, entered a second day with little sign he’s still alive.

“He said he wanted to die with his weapons in his hand,’ Interior Minister Claude Gueant said in an interview on RTL radio today. “Despite redoubled efforts all night long to re-establish contact with him by voice and radio, there’s been no contact, no signs from him. We hope that he’s still alive.”

Gunshots and blasts with orange flares, which began around midnight, echoed across the Toulouse neighborhood as special forces tried to get the 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent to give himself up. Firefighters with stretchers were seen entering the building at about 10:50 a.m., BFM TV reported.

The man, Mohammed Merah, has admitted to the school killings and the slayings of three soldiers. Police said he claimed to have ties to al-Qaeda and said he spent time on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The police zeroed in on Merah two days after the shootings at the school that also left a 17-year-old student seriously wounded, in the worst attack on a Jewish target in France since 1982. In separate incidents in Toulouse and nearby Montauban the week before the school killings, Merah allegedly shot and killed three paratroopers of Arab origin, while a fourth paratrooper remains in critical condition.

The investigators’ ability to track down the suspect has burnished President Nicolas Sarkozy’s role as a leader in a national emergency and may bolster him just a month before the first round of the presidential election. A poll today showed Sarkozy pulling ahead of Socialist Francois Hollande in the first round in the second survey this month to give him a lead.

‘National Unity’

“Sarkozy is in command; he has to manage an open crisis,” Jerome Sainte-Marie, head of Paris-based CSA’s public-opinion unit, said in an interview. “In this role, he is the most credible. He can show authority.”

The election campaign, which had halted during the national mourning, resumed today. The first round of voting will be held on April 22, with the two winners of that vote squaring off in a second round on May 6.

Sarkozy, who was at the funeral yesterday of the three paratroopers killed in shootings in Toulouse and Montauban, in southwestern France, said the “killer hasn’t been able to crack our national unity.”

The crimes the suspect has admitted to would make him the first homegrown terrorist to commit violent acts on French soil.

Merah, born Oct. 10, 1988, in Toulouse to Algerian parents, is one of five children, including three boys. He spent his youth in and out of the legal system before adopting radical Islam and heading to Afghanistan, prosecutors said.

‘Palestinian Children’

When police spoke with the suspect yesterday, “he didn’t have any specific demands,” Gueant said yesterday. “He just talked about his jihadist, mujahedeen convictions, his al-Qaeda ties. He said the attack on the Jewish school was to avenge attacks on Palestinian children.”

Merah had planned to kill again, with the goal of targeting a soldier yesterday and two police officers later on, Francois Molins, the Paris state prosecutor overseeing the case, said at a press conference yesterday.

“He made a spontaneous declaration saying he belongs to al-Qaeda and was trained in the Waziristan war zone,” Molins said. “He expressed no regrets, except to say he regretted not having killed more people. He boasted about having brought France to her knees.”

Merah was sentenced 15 times as a minor for petty crimes, including theft, Molins said. The psychological profile by the police concluded he was “violent as a minor.”

‘Fed Up’

Merah was jobless after having worked for an auto-repair shop, Gueant said.

Shots were exchanged yesterday morning between Merah and the police at the residential complex, which sits in Toulouse’s Cote Pavee neighborhood. Police asked Merah’s mother to negotiate with him. She declined, saying she “has little influence over him,” said Gueant, who was at the site.

Merah’s mother, brother and brother’s girlfriend were taken into custody, Molins said.

The suspect’s neighbors in the apartment complex, who were evacuated during the raid, said they were “fed up.”

“We want to go home,” said Farida Boumama, 48, local goverment worker. “We’ve not been given any information so we’re just watching TV like everyone else.”

About the suspect, she said, “I’d seen him in the building but never really noticed much about him. He kept to himself.”

Acted Alone

Although surveillance videos showed a sole gunman in each of the attacks, “we need to figure out if he was acting alone or with a small group or as part of a bigger movement,” Gueant said yesterday. That will help authorities decide whether to lift a “scarlet” terror alert, the country’s highest, in Toulouse or to extend it to other parts of the country, he said.

Merah maintains he acted alone, Molins said.

The same gun was used in all the shootings, with the helmeted killer arriving and taking off on a scooter after each soldier attack. That narrowed down investigator’s search, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said yesterday on RTL radio.

French investigators were able to identify the suspect by following up on an e-mail communication he had with the first soldier who was killed, on March 11 in Toulouse, Longuet said.

The man had answered the soldier’s classified ad on “Au Bon Coin” to sell a scooter. It was by matching the address with information about jihadists that investigators “closed in,” he said.

Massive Manhunt

The investigation had focused on soldiers to see if there was a “settling of scores,” he said. Investigators pored over the files of 20,000 soldiers with that in mind, he said.

The manhunt was “the biggest police operation in France in many years,” according to Olivier Candille, a Toulouse-based member of the Alliance police union.

The police went through “seven million telephone data points, 700 Internet addresses, collected 350 pieces of evidence and conducted 200 interviews,” Molins said. They went through 576 Internet connections before finding a thread that eventually led to Merah.

About 200 investigators and 2,000 police officers were deployed to secure Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city, with about 450,000 inhabitants.

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