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2:49am UK, Thursday March 22, 2012
Explosions have been heard outside an apartment in Toulouse as French police sought to end a 24-hour siege involving a gunman accused of killing seven people.
Self-declared al Qaeda militant Mohammed Merah has been holed up in the ground floor property since the early hours of Wednesday.
Negotiations have continued all day but Merah reportedly said he would surrender at night “to be more discreet”.
Deputy mayor of Toulouse had said an assault on the building had begun – a claim then denied by interior ministry official Pierre-Henry Brandet.
Mr Brandet said: “They were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender. There is no assault.”
Mohammed Merah as shown in undated video aired on France 2 tv channel
Explosions rocked the district of the southwestern city and orange flashes lit up the sky.
Reuters new agency cites a police source as saying the blasts blew open the door of Merah’s apartment but local French media reported that the wanted man was still inside.
There were also reports of gunfire at the site. Merah is thought to be armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi submachine pistol and a collection of handguns.
Street lighting in the area was turned off earlier as officers continued to surround the apartment block.
The 23-year-old, a French national of Algerian descent, is suspected of killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a wave of attacks in southern France in recent days.
He has reportedly told police that he carried out the murders to “avenge Palestinian children”.
He had also admitted that he planned to kill a soldier on Wednesday morning.
“This will not last for days, because of physical and mental fatigue. All the experience with crazed gunmen like this is that they stop at some point,” defence minister Gerard Longuet said on TF1 television.
“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,” he added.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has said Merah wanted to bring the nation “to its knees”.
The politician, speaking at a memorial service for three soldiers killed by the gunman last week, said the killer had failed to divide France.
The scooter allegedly used in the attacks has been seized by police.
The French prosecutor handling the case, Francois Molins, said Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan.
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His brother, who has been arrested, had been implicated in a network sending fighters to Iraq.
A car belonging to him has also been seized after it was said to contain explosives.
Mr Molins told reporters the US army sent Mohammed Merah back to France after he was arrested in Afghanistan.
Afghan police apparently detained the man at a road checkpoint and handed him over to the US army “who put him on the first plane headed to France,” he said.
If it is Mohammed Merah and he is the al Qaeda killer French police have been hunting, then many viewers glued to the live TV coverage of the siege won’t be bothered if the police shoot him or he kills himself. But the armed officers surrounding him will prefer to take him alive.
Sky’s Martin Brunt on what police may be planning
He also apparently told French media that he has video footage showing his killing sprees and that he is planning to post them online.
Mr Molins said the suspect “expresses no regret, only that he didn’t have time to have more victims. And he even bragged, he said, of bringing France to its knees”.
Shots rang out at the start of the operation this morning after officers spoke to the suspect at the door. At least two policemen were injured in the gunfire.
Terrified neighbours were evacuated from their flats roughly nine hours after the siege began.
The suspect threw a handgun out of the window in exchange for a communications device but still had other weapons.
He told police he is a “mujahideen” or Islamic warrior fighting to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children killed in conflict with Israel.
The French government said its intelligence services had been tracking him for years.
Merah had a criminal record and was in trouble with the police as a juvenile.
French interior minister Claude Gueant said: “This person has made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past… and says he belongs to al Qaeda and says he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and to attack the French army. He has links with people involved in jihadism and Salafism (a strict branch of Islam).”
Read Tim Marshall’s piece on clues left by the suspect
Later he added: “He had for several years been tracked by the DCRI (French intelligence agency) and its agents in Toulouse but there was never anything to suggest that he was preparing a criminal act.”
The Palestinian premier Salam Fayyad has strongly condemned the suspect’s claim he was acting to avenge Palestinian children.
“It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life,” he said.
Officers brought the suspect’s mother to the scene and tried to get her to help in the negotiations but she refused, saying she had “little influence” over him.
The block of flats is surrounded by police and residents are still inside (Source: Google)
The suspect’s mother, brother and the brother’s girlfriend have been arrested.
Explosives were found in the brother’s car, police said.
Neighbours leaving the cordoned off area said he is on the ground floor of a small building in what is usually a quiet housing estate.
Wafia Bendali, 26, who lives on the third floor of the building, said: “We heard gunfire three times, and we turned on the television. Then, the police phoned to say to stay in the house.”
Another neighbour, Farida Boumama, 48, said her family woke up to voices at 3am and heard gunfire an hour later.
“I went to open the window to look out and police shouted, ‘Go inside and close the shutters,'” she said.
Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh and Gabriel, and Miriam Monsonego
One resident told French radio: “They’ve got to get us out of here. They’ve got to come and get us.”
Talking very quietly and crying in panic on the phone to France Info, she said: “Nobody is coming to help us. Nobody is helping us. We’ve been like this, terrified, since 3am.”
Another told how the police climbed across her balcony, telling her: “Stay in your apartment. Do not go out – it’s dangerous.”
France launched one of the biggest manhunts the country has ever seen following the deaths of three children and a teacher at a Jewish school on Monday.
A gunman riding a scooter attacked the Ozar Hatorah school in broad daylight just as pupils were arriving.
It was soon linked to two separate shootings in nearby Montauban earlier this month in which three French soldiers were killed and another seriously injured.
All of the soldiers killed were of North African descent and police have said the three attacks were all carried out by an assailant using the same gun and scooter.
The four victims of the school shooting were buried at a Jerusalem cemetery today after being flown to Israel.
The suspect’s home is close to two of the shootings (Source: Bing Maps)