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French police surround suspect in Toulouse shootings

France shooting

From Diana Magnay and Marilia Brocchetto

CNN

TOULOUSE, France (CNN) — About 300 police officers surrounded an apartment in the south of France on Wednesday, trying to coax a man whom authorities called a self-styled al Qaeda jihadist to surrender after a series of shootings that left seven people dead.

Soon after special operations police mounted their raid in Toulouse at 3:30 a.m., shots rang out from inside, wounding two officers, police said.

The man later threw a handgun out the window, but he has other guns, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.

As the standoff stretched to its sixth hour, Gueant said he expected the suspect to give himself up in the afternoon.

Gueant said the suspect had told him that, adding that he hoped the suspect was telling the truth.

But the suspect later broke off communications with the police, Gueant told reporters.

A prosecution official in Paris named the suspect as Mohammed Merah, 23. He was born in Toulouse, said Elisabeth Allanic, a magistrate at the Prosecutors Office.

He had been under surveillance by French intelligence for years, the interior minister said.

He had “already committed certain infractions, some with violence,” Gueant said.

He was in a Toulouse court February 24 for causing an accident with injuries and driving without a license and served some time in jail, CNN affiliate BFM-TV reported.

Gueant said the suspect had a car containing more weapons near his apartment.

The suspect is accused of killing seven people in the last 10 days: a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school on Monday, and three soldiers of north African origin who had recently returned from Afghanistan in two earlier incidents.

As the siege went on, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would meet with Muslim and Jewish leaders and asked the nation “to unite together to show that terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community.

“France must be stronger than ever in national unity. We owe this to the victims who were assassinated in cold blood,” he said.

Interior Minister Gueant said the suspect is a French national of Algerian origin who spent considerable time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The suspect’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, said Merah went to Afghanistan two years ago.

“He claims to be a jihadist and says he belongs to al Qaeda,” Gueant told reporters at the scene. “He wanted to avenge the Palestinian children and take revenge on the French army because of its foreign interventions.”

The minister did not say how he knew this.

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad strongly rejected using his people as a justification for the French killings, calling them a “cowardly terrorist attack.”

“It is time for those criminals to stop exploiting the name of Palestine through their terrorist actions,” Fayyad said in a statement.

France has about 4,000 troops supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The government has said it will pull them out by 2013.

The suspect belongs to a group called Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Glory, Gueant said.

The French government banned the group in January for trying to recruit people to fight in Afghanistan.

Announcing the ban on the group, Gueant said it is “unacceptable that in our country a group is training people for armed struggle.”

The group issued a “chilling warning” on its Facebook page before it was banned earlier this year, calling on supporters to attack Americans, Jews and French soldiers, terror expert Sajjan Gohel said.

This month’s shooting spree, which targeted minorities, prompted France to put the region on scarlet alert, the highest level in the country.

Police tracked the suspect down via his brother’s IP address, which was apparently used to respond to an ad posted by the first victim, Gueant said.

Imad Ibn Ziaten, a paratrooper of North African origin, arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter which he had advertised online, the minister said. The victim said in the ad that he was in the military.

A message sent from the suspect’s brother’s IP address was used to set up an appointment to inspect the bike, an appointment at which the paratrooper was killed on March 11, Gueant said.

Four days later, two other soldiers were shot dead and another injured by a black-clad man wearing a motorcycle helmet in the southwestern French city of Montauban, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Toulouse.

In the attack at the private Jewish school Ozar Hartorah on Monday, a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and driving a motor scooter pulled up and shot a teacher and three children — two of them his own young sons — in the head.

The other victim, the daughter of the school’s director, was killed in front of her father.

Police said the same guns were used in all three attacks.

Police launched an intense manhunt, and on Wednesday night, zeroed in on the house, located about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Jewish school.

Throughout the standoff, President Sarkozy remained in constant communication with the interior minister, the presidential palace said.

Meanwhile, the bodies of the four victims arrived in Israel where they will be buried in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning.

“Today, all Israel is in pain and mourning over the deaths of innocent children and a dedicated father,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told the families as the coffins were lowered from the plane.

The decision to send the bodies to Israel was made because of their faith, according to the Consistory of Paris, a group representing Jewish communities. France has one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe.

As practicing Jews, their burial in the birthplace of Judaism ensures that their remains will not be tampered with, the consistory added. Forty percent of French practicing Jews are buried in Israel, it said.

The teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, was born and raised in Bordeaux, in southwestern France, but pursued his religious studies in Israel. He married and had children, before returning to teach at the Toulouse school, the consistory said.

His sons, Gabriel, 4, and Arieh, 5, will be buried with him.

The other victim, 7-year-old Miriam Monsonego, will be laid to rest at another cemetery.

CNN’s Aliza Kassim, Stephanie Halasz, Dheepthi Namasivayam, Anna Pritchard and Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.

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