Toulouse Shootings: French Minister Denies Gunman Arrested As Armed Stand-Off Continues

The Huffington Post UK  |  By Posted: 21/03/2012 13:34 Updated: 21/03/2012 17:01

Toulouse Shooting
French Police Surround A House In Raid On Suspect

LIVEBLOG: Click here to read the latest updates from the stand-off.

A suspected gunman at the centre of a 13-hour stand-off with armed police outside in a house in Toulouse says he will surrender late Wednesday evening.

Mohammed Merah is suspected of killing seven people in a series of linked shootings over the past 10 days in the south-west region of France.

French BFM TV had earlier reported his arrest had taken place, but that was denied by Interior Minister Claude Gueant.

"The negotiations continue. They are still under way," Gueant said.

About about 300 police, some wearing body armour, surrounded the four-storey building at around 3am on Wednesday.

Two police officers were injured in the raid after shots were fired. One was shot in the knee, said officials, and another was "lightly injured".

Speaking to French media, a former member of the police Raid unit said the initial operation had been bungled.

Gueant said that the man had earlier thrown one weapon out of a window in exchange for a phone, but still had several arms including an Uzi and a Kalashnikov rifle.

For more than two hours the suspect cut off contact with police, despite swapping one of his weapons for a mobile phone.

Contact only resumed at about 1.30pm French time.

The 24-year-old suspect, named by police as French national Mohammed Merah, who is of Algerian extraction, is said to be acting 'in revenge for Palestinian children' and has claimed to belong to a fringe group related to al-Qaeda.

View Toulouse Shooting in a larger map

More: Full Profile Of Suspected Gunman Mohammed Merah

Photos: victims' funeral takes place in Israel

Merah was reportedly known to the authorities as a member of a fringe al-Qaeda group. Reuters quoted the director of prisons in Khandahar, Afghanistan, who said he was arrested in Afghanistan in 2007 but escaped en masse with other Taliban prisoners in 2008.

It was also reported that Merah had previously attempted to join the French military but was turned down because of his alleged criminal record.

Paris presecutor François Molins said that Merah was obsessed with watching graphic videos of beheadings and torture online, and said while he had trained at terrorist camps he did not have the "soul of a martyr" and was not prepared to die for his beliefs.

French commentator, Pierre Haski told the BBC's Newshour programme that "the mystery here is that he was found to have quite a good arsenal of weapons, war weapons, and given that he was under surveillance it's not clear how this could have escaped the attention of the authorities."

Police have arrested the man's two brothers and sisters at a separate location and also brought his mother to the scene to help the negotiation, without apparent success.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said: "In the name of the nation I would like to congratulate the police for the speed of their inquiry and their exceptional mobilisation of forces," he said.

"I am also thinking deeply about the victims of this barbaric act and also thinking about all those police officers that were wounded last night during the operation."

The siege continued even as the funeral for the victims of Monday's shooting took place in Israel.

The raid comes after the biggest manhunt in French history was launched following Monday's shooting at a Jewish school in which four people including three children were shot dead.

The victims were a rabbi, as well as his two sons and a girl whom is reportedly the school principal's daughter.

For the first time in the country's history, the south-western area of France was put on a "scarlet" terrorism alert by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who has vowed to find the killer.

The tragic deaths have been linked to the deaths of two French paratroopers shot in the nearby town of Montauban on Friday and another in Toulouse on 11 March.

Sky News reporting "three large bangs" close to surrounded house in Toulouse.

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French authorities have switched off the street lights in district where the suspect, Mohammed Merah, remains besieged.

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HuffPost's Cosima Ungaro takes a closer look at the quiet and unassuming man who appears to have held Toulouse hostage for more than a week.

“He was calm. He went around with his black Clio,” says Dany, said to be a "close friend". “It’s true that he was quite silent these last few days but no one suspected a problem.”

“He never wore a beard, never voiced any antisemitic convictions,” he adds. “If he is the culprit, what he did is unforgivable, it is contrary to all the Koran laws.”

Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, explained that even at this late stage in France's ordeal Merah has expressed no sadness for what he has wrought.

"He is not expressing any regrets" except maybe "the one of not having killed more victims."

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Israeli relatives mourn during the funeral of victims of the Toulouse school shooting at the Givat Shaun cemetery in Jerusalem on March 21, 2012.

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@ KandaharMediaOf : Security Forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah.

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Speaking to reporters Paris prosecutor François Molins said that Mehar didn't have the "soul of a martyr".

He said Mehar just wanted to kill, but didn't want to die for his cause.

Molins, who is overseeing the investigation into the killing of three soldiers in Toulouse, added Mehar was obsessed with watching violent videos such as beheadings online.

"He had said he wanted to give himself up in the afternoon or evening, now it's in the late evening," he said.

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Prosecutor Francois Molins said the US army sent Mohammed Merah back to France after he was detained in Afghanistan.

The US "put him on the first plane" Molins said, according to the Telegraph.

Merah had been to Afghanistan twice, he said, and had trained in Waziristan.

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According to the AFP news agency the suspect Mohammed Merah will surrender 'late this evening'.

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National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has been making political hay out of the tragedy in Toulouse, it has been reported.

Le Pen, who is vehemently immigration, said she thought Mohammed Merah “considered himself a Muslim before being a Frenchman” and said she refused any amalgam between French Islam and 'Islamism'.

She also mentioned that the “fundamentalist risk was underestimated in France,” and that it was necessary to wage a “war” against it.

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The lawyer for Mohammed Merah, the man suspected of killing seven people during a series of shooting sprees in southern France, has spoken of his shock that his client could be involved.

Christian Etelin, who has been defending Merah for eight years, revealed in an interview with BFM TV that his client had always been "polite and sweet", and only ever convicted of petty crimes.

According to the lawyer, the last time Merah had been convicted was on 24 February for an “old story” in which he drove without a valid licence. Merah had been convicted to jail for one month.

Etelin told BFM TV he could have never suspected Merah to commit such “radicalisation, harshness, and absolute terror.”

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Sarkozy said at the memorial for the three soldiers gunned down in Montauban and Toulouse:

"A French soldier is somebody who is prepared to die so that the values of France may live.

"A French soldier knows death and knows how to confront it. ... In March 2012 a man was killed in cold blood... On the 15 March 2012 the murderer, we know it was the same person, took as his target three soldiers... The deaths that these men met was not one they had prepared themselves for. ... it was a terrorist execution."

"They were killed because they were French soldiers."

"I want to honour and celebrate this army ... I want to honour these men. I came to stand in front of the coffins of these assassinated soldiers. I came to talk to their families, their nearest and dearest, their brothers in arms."

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From AFP: "French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Jewish community representatives the suspected Islamist gunman besieged in Toulouse had planned another attack Wednesday, a Jewish leader said."

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The interior minister of France has denied an earlier report that the suspected gunman, Mohammed Merah, had been arrested after a 12-hour stand-off.

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HuffPost has spoken to the Toulouse police who said they will not confirm if the suspect has been arrested.

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HuffPost's Cosima Ungaro reports on the terrified residents of suspected gunman Mohammed Merah who were not allowed to leave their homes even after the armed stand-off had begun.

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Mohammed Merah gave himself up to police at 1.24pm, according to Sky News.

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@ H_E_Samuel : This looks bad for #Sarkozy now. How can a convicted Taleban bomber escape allied Afghan jail and kill seven be "under surveillance"?

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According to AFP the suspect has resumed negotiations with police.

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One former member of the Raid special forces has given his verdict on the police operation: "They f**ked up.”

Raid is the Research, Assistance, Intervention and Dissuasion unit of the French national police.

He told Le Monde: “When we enter an apartment, there is always a risk for it to f**k up. It has to go fast, very fast, and we have an initial handicap as the suspect knows the premises, we don’t," he said.

For now, he added, “the best solution is the mousetrap. We wait for him to come out and we get him on the streets, outside.”

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More details about Mohammed Merah have been reported by Europe 1.

Before making his way to Afghanistan, Mohammed Merah applied to the Foreign Legion and to the army. In 2010, he presented himself in both recruiting centers in Toulouse, but he wasn’t accepted because of his criminal record and his psychological instability.

Since then, the DPSD, the Direction for the Protection of Secret-Defence, the former military security, kept an eye on the suspect.

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A man living in the building told french television channel LCI about his night:

"I was woken up, there was some noise, I could hear shots being fired, I came out on my balcony. There was a policeman who shone his flashlight on me telling me to return inside the house. I was a little stunned, I didn’t know what was going on."

Another told I-Tele he personally knows the suspect and saw him often in the building.

“I know who he is, as well as his brother. I met them often, I even told them hello, They were very polite, as normal as could be.”

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During the night, neighbours of the suspect contacted radio channels begging to be evacuated - because police told them not to leave.

One woman spoke to Europe 1 and said with a strangled voice:

"I would like to pass on a message to the police forces so they can help us get out of the building because we are stuck here since 3am with shots being fired, no one is giving us updates and we should be evacuated."

Another was in tears as she spoke to France Info:

"No one came to help us, no one is calling us, we don’t know what is going on, there are noises of shots being fired, there are voices of men talking to him but he won’t surrender. Now someone has to come get us."

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Reuters have reported a Kandahar official as saying the suspected Toulouse gunman was broken out of prison in a "mass jailbreak".

Ghulam Faruq, the director of prisons in Kandahar, told the agency that Merah was arrested for planting bombs in the region and escaped in 2008 after a mass Taliban prison break.

He said that Merah was arrested in 2007.

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The National Front party of France, wrote a press release this morning entitled “For the bastards,” accusing those who had voiced the possibility that the culprit might come from the far right.

According to the party, some politicians used the Toulouse tragedy as an excuse to attack its candidate, Marine Le Pen.

“Your entreprise aimed at dragging in the mud 20% of French people failed. You tried to add your poor political condemnation to the horror of the drama.”

The statement asks to the people concerned to formally apologise to the party and its voters.

The statement is directed to far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Francois Bayrou the Modem leader, and Guillaume Sopo, president of the association SOS Racism, who had criticised the climate of intolerance and division of the electoral campaign.

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Merah called the broadcaster France 24 in the early hours of the morning, the network said.

He said he was connected to Al Qaeda, that what he did marked only "the beginning".

"Merah explained he was against the headscarf ban and was fighting against the French participation to Nato operations in Afghanistan,” said Ebba Kalondo, editor in chief of France 24, who spoke to the suspect, he said.

“The Jews killed our brothers and sisters in Palestine,” he said. The man was calm, talked articulately. He confirmed that all murders had been filmed and that the videos would be posted online.

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Nicolas Sarkozy has made a statement on the stand-off:

"In the name of the nation I would like to congratulate the police for the speed of their inquiry and their exceptional mobilisation of forces," he said.

"I am also thinking deeply about the victims of this barbaric act and also thinking about all those police officers that were wounded last night during the operation."

Sarkozy said he will go to Montauban, the site of the shooting of three soldiers on 11 March, in the afternoon, and later would be in Toulouse

"I have brought the head of the Muslim Council and also the Jewish community together, and I wanted to give them all the information I have and to show terrorism will never succeed.

"We will never give in to vengeance or hatred.

"I think of those victims coldly murdered, we owe them everything."

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According to the Telegraph a bomb exploded outside the Indonesian embassy in Paris on Wednesday morning.

A witness saw a man escape in a Citroen C3 just before the explosion, the newspaper said.

No one was hurt in the incident, and no link with the shootings in Toulouse has been made.

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Interior minister Claude Gueant said that the suspect is "no longer talking to police".

He said that two of Mohammed Merah's sisters and two of his brothers are being held by police.

He also confirmed that weaponry had been found in a car near to the stand-off.

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