Extremist in French murders ‘watched for years’

French Police officers and firefighters stand at night next to the apartment building where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school is still barricaded
French Police officers and firefighters stand at night next to the apartment building where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school is still barricaded
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AN ISLAMIC extremist suspected of multiple killings in France had been under surveillance for years, it emerged yesterday.

The French Interior Ministry admitted Mohamed Merah had been on the authorities’ radar for his “fundamentalist” views, yet he was still able to carry out a string of ruthless murders.

The revelation came as Prosecutor Francois Molins said the gunman was a self-taught radical Salafi who had expressed glee at killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers.

He added that Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.

Merah is suspected of being responsible for the terrifying killing spree in the region of Toulouse in south west France.

During yesterday’s negotiations at the stand-off between Merah and police, the prosecutor said the suspect “expresses no regret, only that he didn’t have time to have more victims. And he even bragged, he said, of bringing France to its knees”.

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said US President Barack Obama called him yesterday to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect.

The statement said France and the United States are “more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together”.

After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France beefed up its legal arsenal – now seen as one of the most effective in western Europe and a reference for countries including the US after the September 11 attacks.

In recent years, French counterterrorism officials have focused mainly on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s network that has its roots in an insurgent group in Algeria, a former French colony.

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

“He wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Mr Gueant told reporters as talks aimed at negotiating the gunman’s surrender went on last night. “He’s (also) after the army.”

Mr Molins said Merah’s first trip to Afghanistan ended with him being picked up by Afghan police “who turned him over to the American army who put him on the first plane to France”.

“He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier,” Mr Molins said, adding he also planned to attack two police officers. “He claims to have always acted alone.”

Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Mr Molins added.

Meanwhile, the funeral of the rabbi and three children gunned down at a Jewish school were buried in Jerusalem yesterday.

At the funeral ceremony, Eva Sandler, the widow of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and mother of two of the dead children, and Yaffa Monsenego, the mother of the third, burst repeatedly into tears as speaker after speaker remembered the victims. The women had flown to Israel to bury their loved ones.

Mrs Sandler is pregnant and arrived in Israel with her remaining child, a toddler.

About 400 people gathered at the cemetery, including relatives who arrived from France, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and leaders of the French Jewish community.

Israeli parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin said the Jewish people “once again find themselves facing beasts ... driven out of their minds by hatred”.

Mr Juppe said “an attack on a Jew in France is not only an issue for French Jews. ... Anti-semitism is against all French values.”

Earlier, an Israel Airlines flight from Paris brought the bodies of the rabbi, his sons Arieh, five, and Gabriel, three, and eight-year-old Myriam Monsenego to Israel. The children held dual Israeli-French citizenship; the rabbi had lived in Israel for years and the families had asked to bury them there.

After the aircraft landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport before dawn, memorial prayers were read over the plain pine coffins bearing Stars of David before they were placed in four ambulances for transport to the Har Menuchot cemetery.