Standoff in Toulouse enters second day

Published Mar 22, 2012 07:03am

French police officers stand next to the building in Toulouse, France, Wednesday March 21, where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school has been holed up. — Photo AP

TOULOUSE: A standoff at a Toulouse apartment building entered a second day Thursday with hundreds of French police working to try to capture alive the main suspect in an al-Qaeda-linked killing spree that left seven people dead.

Police were using their advantages — numbers, firepower and psychological pressure —  in hopes of wearing down 24-year-old suspect Mohamed Merah, who is holed up in an apartment in the southwestern French city.

Authorities say Merah has boasted about carrying out the shootings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers in three separate incidents over the last two weeks. They are believed to be the first incidents of killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.

Elite police squads set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning — some that blew off the apartment's shutters — in what officials described as a tactic aimed to pressure Merah to give up.

Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah clung to his few remaining assets like a small arsenal and authorities' hopes of taking him alive. He appeared to toy with police negotiators, first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether, officials said.

Authorities said the shooter, a French citizen of Algerian descent, had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.

They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.

''He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has broughtFranceto its knees,'' said prosecutor Francois Molins.

As darkness fell, police cut electricity and gas to the building, then quietly closed in to wait out the suspect.

Authorities were ''counting on his great fatigue and weakening,'' said Didier Martinez of the SGP police union, adding the siege could go on for hours. Street lights were also cut, making Merah more visible to officers with night vision goggles in case of an assault.

The gunman's brother and mother were detained early Wednesday. Molins said the 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters toIraq, but was never charged.

The siege was part of France's biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists.


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