TOULOUSE, France — (DMN/BBC) – The Frenchman suspected of a spate of shootings in the Toulouse area planned more killings, prosecutors have said. Anti-terror chief Francois Molins said the suspect, named as Mohammed Merah, 23, of Algerian descent, intended to kill a soldier and two police officers. Merah, who says he was trained by al-Qaeda, is suspected of murdering three soldiers and four Jewish people. Police have surrounded his flat and are trying to persuade him to surrender. He is said to be heavily armed. Earlier reports said he had been captured, but officials later rebuffed the claims.
The killings took place in and around Toulouse in three separate incidents earlier this month. On 11 March, a soldier was shot and killed while waiting to see a man about selling his motorcycle. Days later, two soldiers were shot and killed, and a third was wounded while waiting at a cash machine. Then earlier this week, three children and an adult were shot and killed outside a Jewish school. The four Jewish victims were buried in an emotional funeral in Jerusalem earlier.
In a news conference, Mr Molins said Merah had planned to kill a soldier later on Wednesday and also had plans to target the police. “If he’s telling the truth, he would have left his house this morning and he would have once again killed any soldier that he came across,” the prosecutor said. Mr Molins said the suspect had expressed no regret for the killings, but had said he wanted to kill more people and “bring France to its knees”. President Nicolas Sarkozy has attended a memorial at a military base in nearby Montauban for the three murdered soldiers. He earlier told Jewish community leaders that the gunmen had been planning more attacks before police had surrounded his apartment block.
Police moved into Merah’s block after two officers were shot at when they tried to get into his flat. Officials say he is heavily armed with a Kalashnikov high-velocity rifle, a mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol, several handguns and possibly grenades. The five-storey block of flats was evacuated earlier, and police were also moving residents of nearby buildings. Hundreds of officers are now stationed outside the block. Elsewhere in the city, police are hunting for accomplices and have detained several members of his family. His mother was taken to the scene in the hope that she could persuade him to surrender, but she told police that she had no influence over her son.
At the scene
Richard Galpin BBC News, Toulouse
Just after President Sarkozy arrived in Toulouse for meetings at a military barracks close to where the siege is taking place, reports began circulating that it was all over, Mohammed Merah had been arrested. But minutes later came the denials. First by local officials in Toulouse, then by the interior minister himself. It all added to the tension. How will the siege which began at 3am local time on Wednesday morning, be brought to an end?
Officially the French government says it wants to capture him alive so that he can stand trial on charges of murdering seven people and injuring at least two others. But it will not be an easy operation if he decides to stand and fight. He is reported to have an automatic rifle, a sub machinegun and grenades inside his apartment.
Negotiators have been talking to Merah all morning, but officials said he appeared to have no particular demands. The suspect has said he acted to “avenge Palestinian children” and said he would give himself up. Merah claimed to have received al-Qaeda training in Pakistan’s Waziristan area, and also said he had been to Afghanistan, prosecutors said. Afghan officials told the BBC he had been jailed in Kandahar for planting bombs in 2007, but escaped in a Taliban-led break-out in 2008. Other Afghan sources cast doubt on the claims, saying the man jailed in Kandahar might have been a different person with the same name.
Mr Molins said Merah had visited Afghanistan twice. He gave no details of the first visit, but said that during his second trip last year, Merah was captured by Afghan forces and handed to the Americans, who put him on a plane back to France. But American officials told CNN that US forces had not dealt with Merah, and that the Afghans had handed him to French forces, who had returned him to France.
Mohammed Merah, the man believed to be the gunman on a scooter who killed seven people in south-western France, is a 23-year-old French citizen of Algerian extraction. Before the shootings in Toulouse and Montauban, he was brought to French attention because of visits he made to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was also known to the French authorities because he had a criminal record for non-terrorist crimes. Police surrounded him at a block of flats in Toulouse after the shootings, in which three French soldiers and a rabbi and three Jewish children were killed.
According to French prosecutors, he has expressed no regrets other than “not having claimed more victims” and is proud of having “brought France to its knees”. He said he had been motivated by the fate of the Palestinians, the French military presence in Afghanistan and France’s ban on the full veil, prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters. Earlier, the suspect had reportedly described himself as an Islamist warrior and member of the al-Qaeda network. French news channel BFM TV said he was linked to Forsane Alizza (Knights of Pride), an Islamist group banned last month in France.
French broadcaster France 24 said it had received a call from a man claiming to be the gunman. He allegedly told a journalist he had “filmed all the murders” and that the videos “would be posted online shortly”. The suspect is from Toulouse where he grew up on the Izards housing estate, according to French newspaper JDD. He later moved into the block of flats on Sergent Vigne Street, in a quiet part of the city, where he was surrounded by police. A neighbour described him as a “quiet man with a beard” who had “never done anything special”.
Armed police in the French city of Toulouse have sealed off a block of flats where a man suspected of killing seven people is hiding.
From a family of five children, the suspect is a mechanic by trade, according to French magazine Le Point. With 18 acts of violence on his record, he was considered a juvenile delinquent, and served two short prison terms, in 2007 and 2009. However, two of his friends said he was a “nice guy” who “got on well with everyone”, JDD reports. One of them, Samir, said Mohammed Merah had been seen in a Toulouse night club only last week. “I served in the army and he never said anything to me about it,” he added. “I am also shocked he killed North Africans. We can’t believe it.”
An unnamed young man who ran into him in a rai (popular Arab music) night club around the time of the first shooting painted a different picture for the French magazine Nouvel Observateur. “He’s a waster, a layabout,” he said. “A loner. Not a serious guy… Sometimes he had his hair long, sometimes short, sometimes red.” Mohammed Merah visited Pakistan twice, in 2010 and 2011, French reports say. According to French newspaper Le Monde, he trained with militants in Pakistan before crossing the border, where at one stage he was stopped by an Afghan police patrol. He was not arrested but the police reported his nationality to the Western authorities, Le Monde says.
- French citizen of Algerian extraction, aged 23
- Has criminal record in France for non-terrorist crimes
- Has described himself as an al-Qaeda member and has spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Other French sources say he was arrested in Kandahar at the end of 2010 on a non-terrorist charge. However, BBC News has learnt that he may have been in the region as early as 2007, when a militant of Algerian origin was jailed in Afghanistan for planting improvised explosive devices. That prisoner escaped in a jailbreak the following year. In the days before French police closed in on him, Mohammed Merah was seen by a neighbour praying on a football pitch near his block of flats. He reportedly became radicalised years ago while serving a brief prison sentence for a violent crime, Le Point says.
When his mother was asked by police to assist in police negotiations, she reportedly refused, saying she no longer had any influence over her son. French lawyer Christian Etelin, who defended the suspect in non-terrorist proceedings in recent years, told AFP he had not given the impression of being a fanatic and had never talked about Islam to him. “But two years ago I learnt that he had suddenly become radicalised and had left for Afghanistan,” the lawyer added. After the first two shootings, in Toulouse and Montauban, the suspect was “in the sights” of France’s domestic intelligence service, the DCRI, along with others, an unnamed official told AFP news agency. A crucial piece of evidence appears to have been an email account used to contact the first shooting victim, who had advertised a motorcycle online.