Thursday, March 22, 2012

French Police, Shooting Suspect Continue Standoff

Police officers stand near a building in Toulouse, France, March 21, 2012, where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school is barricaded in an apartment building. (AP Photo) 

France - After a pre-dawn raid erupted into a firefight, French riot police pressed Wednesday for the surrender of a holed-up gunman who is suspected in seven killings and claiming allegiance to al Qaeda. A prosecutor said the man was planning to kill another soldier imminently.
After 13 hours of negotiations, one French official said hundreds of police were ready to storm the building in the southwestern city of Toulouse to end the standoff.
Three police have already been wounded trying to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who is suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said the gunman, Mohamed Merah, had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan. Molins said the gunman's brother Abdelkader had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suspect has been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" Islamic views.
The police raid Wednesday was part of France's biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France's worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers, killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for the French presidential election next month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.
"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in Montauban, near Toulouse.
Sarkozy met with local Jewish leaders earlier Wednesday and told them the police would only storm the building if there was an immediate threat that he'd blow up himself or the building and authorities are satisfied for now that he is not prepared to do so, reports CBS Radio News correspondent Elaine Cobbe.
Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said the suspect has promised to turn himself into police shortly. Delage said if that doesn't happen, police will force their way in.
The suspect has told police he belonged to al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding the man was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
"He's after the army," Gueant said.
The man's brother and mother were also detained overnight, the prosecutor said. 
In the negotiations Wednesday, 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," the prosecutor said.
"He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier," Molins said, adding also planned to attack two police officers. "He claims to have always acted alone."
Mohammed Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Molins added.
Christian Etelin, a lawyer who previously represented Merah in France regarding other legal matters, described Merah as "polite and courteous" to French media outlet BFMTV. He said that he "absolutely" did not espouse extremist views in his presence, "but I learned two years ago that he was suddenly radicalized and had gone to Afghanistan."
There was some confusion over the suspect's background. The commander of the prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Col. Ghulam Farouq, tells CBS News they had a prisoner by the name of Mohammad Merah of north African origin who was arrested in 2008 in connection with a bombing in Kandahar and sentenced to three years. He managed to escape later that year, along with about 600 other prisoners, in a brazen prison break staged by the Taliban.
But it's unclear if the suspected shooter is in fact the Merah who escaped the prison. Kandahar provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal said their records also show that Merah was an Afghan citizen from Kandahar province.
Police swept in soon after 3 a.m. to the residential neighborhood in northern Toulouse where the suspect was holed up. At one point, volleys of gunfire were exchanged.
The suspect promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, then stopped talking to negotiators, Gueant said. In the early afternoon, he resumed talking.
Police evacuated the five-story building in northern Toulouse, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders.
French authorities said the suspect threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but has more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in the suspect's car.
The suspect "said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians," Gueant told reporters, adding that he was "less explicit" about why he killed French paratroopers. The paratroopers were of Muslim and French Caribbean origin, but the interior minister said the suspect told them the ethnic origin had nothing to do with his actions.
"The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials," Gueant said, explaining authorities want to "take him alive ... It is imperative for us."
On Tuesday night, a man claiming to be the shooter called French network France24 and spoke to an executive producer about his alleged motivations for the attacks. He told the producer he was part of a group allied to al Qaeda, and that the shootings were just the beginning of a series of planned attacks. It has not been confirmed that the man who called France24 was Merah.
I asked him 'What would you need for this campaign of terror to stop?' He replied two things: 'Either prison where I would be able to hold my head up high and explain myself or death. Because unlike yourselves I am not scared of death," Ebba Kalondo, the producer, said in an interview that aired on France24.
The man claimed that the attacks were in response to France's ban on Islamic veils in public and France's participation in the Afghanistan war effort," Kalondo said.
"As for the attack on the Jewish schools he was adamant that it was revenge for the killings of what he termed 'my little brothers and sisters in Palestine.'"
The building where the raid is taking place dates from the 1960s. The suspect's apartment is on the ground floor, said Eric Lambert, whose son lives in the building.
Delage said a key to tracking the suspect was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle that he has used in all three attacks — a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.
According to Delage, one of the suspect's brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.
The shooter has proved to be a meticulous operator. At the site of the second paratrooper killing, police found the clip for the gun used in all three attacks — but no fingerprints or DNA on it.
The first French paratrooper killed was shot March 11 after posting an announcement online to sell his motorcycle and investigators believe the gunman responded and lured the paratrooper into an isolated place to kill him on March 11.
Those slain at the Jewish school, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday as relatives sobbed inconsolably. The bodies of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsenego had been flown there in the day.
At the funeral ceremony in Jerusalem, Myriam's eldest brother, Avishai, in his 20s, wailed and called to God to give his parents the strength "to endure the worst trial that can be endured."
In the name of the four remaining Monsenego children, he urged his father and mother to "keep going, keep going, keep going."
Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad denounced the deadly shooting attack and condemned the link to Palestinian children.





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