An Islamic extremist suspected of killing seven people was planning to take more lives when French police tracked him to his home yesterday.
Mohamed Merah said he planned to turn himself last night in but as darkness fell – and authorities turned off the street lights – a tense stand-off with police continued at his ground floor Toulouse flat.
Three officers were wounded as they tried to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent during a raid about 3am yesterday.
Merah is wanted for the murders of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in a wave of attacks in southern France,
He threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three shootings out of a window in exchange for a radio to talk to police, but was believed to have more weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle.
Hundreds of police cordoned off the streets around the apartment complex as negotiations with the suspect dragged on for hours. Authorities were keen to capture Merah alive to see him face justice.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said the gunman was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch yesterday’s morning’s failed raid.
The gunman’s brother and mother were also detained. Mr Molins said the brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
French authorities – like others in Europe – have long been concerned about “lone-wolf” attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who self-radicalise online. Mr Molins’ comments, however, marked the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.
The police 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 on Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers beginning nearly two weeks ago, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term. “Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Mr Sarkozy declared on national television before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed and another injured in Montauban, near Toulouse, on Thursday.
The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in yesterday, then halted negotiations. Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were preparing to storm the building.
During the standoff, police evacuated the five-storey building. The suspect’s apartment was on the ground floor of the postwar block, locals said.
Mr Delage said a key to tracking the suspect was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle used in all three attacks. It was stolen on March 6. One of the suspect’s brothers went to a motorcycle dealer to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions, and the dealer contacted police.
Extremist ‘watched’: Page 6.