French police prepare to move on shooting suspect

CBS News              March 21, 2012

Police officers stand near a building in Toulouse, France, March 21, 2012, where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school is barricaded in an apartment building. (AP Photo)

(CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France – French police were preparing to storm an apartment building in Toulouse on Wednesday to arrest a holed-up gunman who is suspected in seven killings and claiming allegiance to al Qaeda, a top police official said.

Three officers were wounded in a predawn raid while trying to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who authorities said had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hundreds of riot police have surrounded the building in the southwestern city.

Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said the suspect has promised to turn himself into police shortly. Delage said if that doesn’t happen, police will force their way in.

The gunman is suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers in recent days.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with local Jewish leaders Wednesday and told them the police would only storm the building if there was an immediate threat that he’d blow up himself or the building and authorities are satisfied for now that he is not prepared to do so, reports CBS Radio News correspondent Elaine Cobbe.

Sarkozy said authorities aim to bring the suspect in unharmed so he can face justice.

The suspect has told police he belonged to al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding the man was also angry about French military intervention abroad.

An Interior Ministry official identified the suspect as Mohamed or Mohammad Merah, who has been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah planned to kill another soldier imminently, prompting the police raid. Molins said Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan.

After hours of trying to persuade him to surrender, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders.

The raid was part of France’s biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France’s worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers, killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for the French presidential election starting next month.

Sarkozy has said a “monster” was on the loose in France and vowed to track him down. Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.

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