Tension mounts at French standoff after three blasts


Three explosions rocked a building where Mohamed Merah, the al-Qaeda-linked suspect in a string of killings in France, has been holed up for nearly 24 hours in a standoff with French police.

But an uneasy quiet returned early Thursday as balaclava-wearing police troops, members of the elite special raid team, moved among the heavy police presence in the darkened Toulouse neighbourhood where Merah had sought cover. The explosions at 11:30 pm (2230 GMT) Wednesday were a police intimidation manoeuvre, France’s Interior Ministry said, according to the BFM news channel.

The explosions had sparked speculation that police were about to storm the building.

The 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent is accused of gunning down three French soldiers and four people at a Jewish school, including three children, in attacks that have rocked the country since March 11.

Merah had told negotiators that he would turn himself in by Wednesday afternoon but kept postponing that promise.

‘He has no desire to be a martyr,’ federal prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters earlier Wednesday. ‘He prefers to remain alive.’

That sentiment was underlined by Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who told French television TF1 that Merah told police negotiators that he had refused orders by al-Qaeda to carry out a suicide attack in France but agreed to carry out targeted killings.

Gueant said Merah received the al-Qaeda orders during travels to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Gueant also revealed more details about French intelligence’s earlier suspicions about Merah. He had been interrogated in November about his travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan but had explained that the trips were for pleasure, not criminal activity.

‘He explained, with the use of photographs as evidence, that it was a tourist trip,’ Gueant said.

Two hours before the explosions, which flared bright orange, police doused the streetlights around the building in the leafy Toulouse suburb of Cote Pavee. Reporters were kept at a two-block distance from the scene.

Police cut off electricity and gas to the apartment, and a bomb disposal truck, ambulances and fire trucks were waiting at the ready near the scene of the standoff.

Molins said Merah had confessed to the killings during negotiations and said he was motivated by a wish to ‘avenge Palestinian children’ and protest France’s overseas military operations.

‘He has boasted about bringing France to its knees,’ Molins said. ‘He expresses no regret, other than that he did not have time for more victims.’

Funerals for the victims were held Wednesday in Jerusalem and at a French military base in Montauban, where President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke of a ‘terrorist execution.’

Police focussed on Merah when they identified his mother’s computer IP address as one that was used to answer an online ad for a motorcycle that was posted by the first soldier victim. Special police forces then moved on the five-storey apartment building where he was staying.

Merah immediately barricaded himself in an apartment and started shooting through the door, injuring two policemen. His neighbours had not been evacuated ahead of the raid so as not to tip him off.

Residents huddled in groups watching policemen in helmets and flak jackets come and go and marvelled that a suspected killer had been living in their midst.

‘It just shows how little we know our neighbours these days,’ one woman said.

Merah was given a means of communication with the police in exchange for throwing a Colt handgun out of a window, officials said. A Colt was used in all three attacks, police said.

But Merah also told police that he had other weapons, including a Kalashnikov rifle and an Uzi submachine gun. French officials, including Sarkozy, insisted that their goal was to take Merah alive so he could be tried.

‘The only thing that matters is that this madman, this terrorist, will be brought to justice,’ said Marc Sztulman, an official from the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions.

Merah had been on the radar of France’s intelligence services ‘for several years’ because of the time he spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gueant said. In 2007, he was held in a jail in southern Afghanistan, Kandahar prison director Ghulam Farooq said.

Gueant insisted that there had been no indication he would turn violent.

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