By Laurent Lozano / AFP
TOULOUSE: French police kept up pressure Thursday as the siege of a self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda militant entered a second day, but officials admitted they were not certain he was still alive.
Blasts and gunshots were heard overnight near the flat in Toulouse in southern France where the gunman suspected of killing seven people, including three soldiers and three Jewish children, was holed up.
Police said anti-terrorist officers besieging the apartment had exploded a series of charges before and after midnight to intimidate the suspect, identified by officials as 23-year-old Mohamed Merah.
But Interior Minister Claude Gueant said authorities were concerned that Merah had not reacted to the blasts and that there had been no recent contact with him.
“We have one priority: to take him alive so that he can surrender to face justice. We hope he is still alive,” Gueant said on RTL radio, noting that it was “quite strange that he did not react” to the explosions.
Gueant said Merah had told authorities he wanted “to die weapons in hand” but noted that there had been mysterious gunshots during the night.
“We heard two shots, we don’t know what they were,” he added. “Despite redoubled efforts throughout the night; there has been no contact with him.”
Prosecutors said Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, had fought off several police assaults on the flat on Wednesday and bragged to negotiators of having been trained by Al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims and even boasted of having brought France to its knees,” France’s top anti-terror prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.
The drama began in pre-dawn raids on Wednesday, and the French authorities are convinced they have surrounded the right man and that he has no hostages with him.
After two police were shot wounded when they attempted to raid the apartment, authorities evacuated the building, turned off electricity in the neighborhood and settled in for the siege.
Officials have said that Merah has repeatedly said he was willing to give himself up but would change his mind.
Merah is thought to be armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi submachine pistol and a collection of handguns.
Molins said Merah had claimed responsibility for three shootings over the previous 10 days in which three French paratroopers, three Jewish children and a teacher were killed in cold blood, shocking the nation.
He claimed to be avenging Palestinian deaths and opposing the French military’s involvement in Afghanistan and France’s ban on full-face veils.
“Mohamed Merah explained that he belonged to Al-Qaeda. He explained he had been trained by Al-Qaeda in the Pakistani-Afghanistan region in Waziristan,” Molins told reporters in Toulouse, scene of two of the shootings.
Waziristan is a tribal area of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan which is known as a haven for Islamist insurgents — including Al-Qaeda militants — connected to Taliban guerrillas fighting in both countries.
Molins said the suspect had gone to the region twice and on one occasion had been arrested by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.
Gueant said Merah received orders from Al-Qaeda.
“He explained how… he had even been suggested to carry out a suicide mission and refused, but agreed to carry out a general mission to commit an attack in France,” Gueant told TF1 television.
Police and prosecutors said they had arrested Merah’s mother, brother and his brother’s girlfriend as part of the inquiry.
Sources said the suspect had been known to the domestic security service for some years.
Gueant has defended law enforcement from criticism for missing danger signs.
“In France you do not get sent to prison for professing strange or extremist ideas,” Gueant told AFP.
On Wednesday, the Jewish victims of the attacks were buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down, two of them fatally, in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban.
The pair — Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, — was also French soldiers of North African origin.
Then on Monday the shooter, again wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in an April-May vote, and several rival candidates for the presidency attended a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers at their barracks in Montauban.
Sarkozy returned to Paris, where his office said US President Barack Obama had called to offer condolences, adding: “France and the United States are more determined than ever to fight together against terrorist barbarism.”