The man suspected of murdering seven people in France, including three children and a teacher at a Jewish school, died in a police raid after he was holed up in his Toulouse apartment for about 32 hours.
He was shot in the head as he jumped out of his first-floor apartment window in a hail of bullets during a gunfight with the police, Francois Molins, the Paris state prosecutor overseeing the case, said at a press conference today. The exchange of fire began after police failed to get Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, to give himself up.
“Merah suddenly burst out of the bathroom where he was hiding, armed, and firing at police at an extremely fast rate, so fast that it was like automatic-weapon fire,” Molins said. “He was attacking, lunging at police across the apartment and firing at them with a Colt .45. He continued to move forward, armed and firing, jumping from the balcony until he was mortally hit by return fire from the police. They got him in the head.”
The man, who admitted to the school killings and the slayings of three soldiers, claimed ties to al-Qaeda and said he spent time on the Afghan-Pakistan border, the police said. A group with al-Qaeda links claimed responsibility for the shootings, AFP said. The crimes make Merah the first homegrown Islamic terrorist to commit violent acts on French soil.
“Everything was done to bring the murderer to justice,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said in an address to the nation. “But we couldn’t risk more lives. There have already been too many deaths. An investigation is taking place to determine whether there were accomplices.”
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, in southwestern France, the week before the school killings, Merah shot and killed three paratroopers of Arab origin, police said. A fourth paratrooper remains in critical condition.
The investigators’ ability to track down the suspect has burnished 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.
“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, halted as the nation mourned, resumed today. The first round of voting will be held on April 22, with the two leading contenders squaring off on May 6.
Sarkozy, who was at the funeral yesterday of the three paratroopers, said the “killer hasn’t been able to crack our national unity.”
The gunman filmed all his attacks, with the content of the camera “extremely explicit,” the prosecutor, Molins, said.
“We see him at his meeting with the soldier, inquiring about his military status and killing him with two bullets while saying ‘you kill my brothers, I kill you,’” he said. “We also see him killing the soldiers in Montauban in an extremely violent scene and driving his scooter screaming Allah Akbar.”
He also filmed his attack at the Jewish school.
During his standoff with the police, Merah provided information on where to find one of his weapons-laden rented cars, his scooter and the camera.
Toward the end, Merah, who wore a bullet-proof vest, locked himself in the bathroom. He fired 30 rounds on the police between the time he burst out of the bathroom until he jumped from the balcony, Molins said.
Inside his apartment, police found three empty clips for automatic pistols and a container full of ammunition. The balcony had bottles and rags to make Molotov cocktails. Beside his body, lay a Colt .45 with a clip containing two bullets.
Merah told the police late last night that “a surrender would be against his commitments and beliefs,” Molins said. “He told negotiators he wanted to die as Mujahedeen, weapons in hand,” before cutting off all communication.
It was clear late yesterday that “the suspect wasn’t going to give up,” Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters.
Police waited 12 hours before starting the final assault, after having tried to provoke him to resume talks using deafening grenades to increase his stress level.
Merah had planned to kill again, with the goal of targeting a soldier yesterday and two police officers later on, Molins, said yesterday.
“He expressed no regrets, except to say he regretted not having killed more people,” Molins said. “He boasted about having brought France to her knees.”
Merah, who had several brushes with the law for petty crimes, bought weapons using money from thefts, Molins said.
Born Oct. 10, 1988, in Toulouse to Algerian parents, Merah was 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.
When police spoke with the suspect yesterday, “he didn’t have any specific demands,” Gueant said. “He just talked about his jihadist, mujahedeen convictions. He said the attack on the Jewish school was to avenge attacks on Palestinian children.”
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.”
Upon leaving prison after serving an 18-month sentence for purse-snatching, he tried to join the army and was rejected, said Christian Etelin, a lawyer who represented Merah on his numerous run-ins with the law since 2005.
“He wanted to find his utility by serving his country,” Etelin said in an interview. “Instead he felt he had no place in society. He went to Pakistan-Afghanistan. He was very mysterious about it. I think this talk of belonging to al-Qaeda was fanciful imagination, a way to feel important.”
Merah was jobless after having worked for an auto-repair shop until a few weeks ago, Gueant said.
A neighbor in the suspect’s apartment complex said she barely knew him. “I’d seen him in the building but never really noticed much about him,” said Farida Boumama, 48, a local government worker. “He kept to himself.”
Merah maintained he acted alone, Molins said.
Before the Jewish school attack, the investigation had focused on soldiers to see if there was a settling of scores, Molins said. Also, since the three murdered paratroopers were of Arab descent, a group of former soldiers with neo-Nazi sympathies was briefly suspected.
The weekend before the March 19 attack on the Jewish school, investigators went through the 576 Internet e-mail responses to a classified ad on “Au Bon Coin” to sell as scooter placed by the soldier killed on March 11 in Toulouse.
An e-mail from Merah’s mother’s address drew investigators’ attention because it was featured on the French intelligence list on people with jihadist links.
The “defining element” that trigged the raid was information provided by a scooter dealer, Molins said. The dealer told police about a man who’d questioned him about removing a GPS tracker in order to repaint a scooter, providing investigators with the suspect’s name. The color of the scooter used in the attacks was altered.
The police went through “seven million telephone data points, 700 Internet addresses, collected 350 pieces of evidence and conducted 200 interviews,” Molins said.
About 200 investigators and 2,000 police officers were deployed to secure Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city, with about 450,000 inhabitants.
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.