Suspected Toulouse gunman arrested
BY:PETER WILSON, EUROPE CORRESPONDENT From:The Australian March 22, 2012 1:18AM
THE suspect in three deadly shootings in southern France was reportedly arrested early today after admitting to the murders and describing himself as an al-Qa’ida supporter.
The arrest of Mohammed Merah, reported by French television, came several hours after police special forces officers exchanged fire with the besieged man in his flat in Toulouse.
French police said early today explosives had been found in car of the suspect’s brother.
Merah, a 24-year-old French citizen of Algerian descent, injured three policemen during a heavily armed stand-off at his Toulouse apartment.
News that the man who has killed seven people over the past two weeks was a Muslim extremist motivated by anger at French military interventions abroad was seized on by far-Right presidential candidate Marine le Pen, who said France had long ignored an internal Islamic threat.
With the cold-blooded murder of seven people coming just five weeks before presidential elections, the National Front leader said that until now the nation “has been frightened of looking (the terrorist threat) in the face.”
Ms Le Pen told French TV that France should wage war against “these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children”.
A television news channel said the gunman had called it shortly before the police raid to say that he had filmed the killings of three Muslim soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi, and that he was planning to post the footage on the internet within hours.
Ebba Kalondo, the editor-in-chief of France 24, said the caller had warned that more killings were to come and had identified himself by giving details of the number of bullets fired in the three crimes and the type of arms used.
But before dawn, police raided his apartment, which was less than 2km from the Jewish school where four victims were killed with close-range shots to the head on Monday.
Merah fired through the front door, hitting one officer in the knee and injuring another, with a third officer apparently hit during further exchanges of fire.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had yelled to a police negotiator through his barricaded door, and later spoke to officers on a mobile phone.
Merah promised he would surrender later in the day but a few hours later negotiations broke down and he stopped talking to police.
“He claims to be a mujaheddin and to belong to al-Qa’ida,” Mr Gueant said at the scene.
“He wanted revenge for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to take revenge on the French army because of its foreign interventions.”
Merah is believed to have trained with the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan. His Algerian-born mother had been taken to the scene to help talk him out of the apartment but she told police she had little influence over him.
Police blew up Merah’s van parked near the apartment and said it contained a small machine gun and other weapons.
Merah surrendered a .45 Colt handgun in exchange for a mobile phone but was believed to still have a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol and other handguns.
The swift tracking down of the suspect could prove a coup for President Nicolas Sarkozy, who ordered the nation’s highest-ever terrorist alert. Mr Sarkozy’s supporters will be relieved that the killer does not appear to be an anti-immigrant extremist.
But the incident could still prove embarrassing to the security and intelligence services who had been tracking his activities for years after suggestions Merah may have been living in France while on the run from a prison in Afghanistan. Ghulam Faruq, the director of Kandahar prison, told Reuters that a Frenchman with the same name was jailed for planting bombs but escaped in a mass Taliban jailbreak in 2008.
The first three murder victims were soldiers of North African descent and the subsequent targeting of Jewish victims prompted suggestions from some politicians that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Mr Sarkozy and Ms Le Pen in the early stages of the election campaign had contributed to a volatile social environment.
Police said Merah had been an early suspect because he had visited Pakistan and Afghanistan and had been in contact with Islamic militants, “then the criminal investigation police brought in crucial evidence”.
Police tracked Merah through the Yamaha motorbike he used during the shootings and through an internet address he had used to set up a meeting with the first victim, Imad Ibn Ziaten, a 30-year-old paratrooper who had advertised the bike for sale. Police discovered he had asked at a garage how to turn off a tracking device.
Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expressed resentment at Merah’s citing of the Palestinian cause to justify his attacks.
“It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life,” he said.
On March 11 Staff Sergeant Ziaten, a 30-year-old member of the 1st Parachute Logistics Regiment, was shot in the head at close range with the .45 calibre pistol, a method that was to become the suspect’s signature.
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 dead – Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, both of the 17th Parachute Engineering Regiment – were French soldiers of North African Arab origin. Corporal Chennouf, who leaves a pregnant finance, Caroline, was buried last night.
Mr Sarkozy and his Socialist rival for the presidency Francois Hollande were due to attend a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers in Montauban early today.
Staff Sergeant Ziaten was to be buried in Morocco.