Prosecutor: French shooter proud of the 7 slayings

TOULOUSE, France (AP) — In a tense standoff, French riot police demanded the surrender Wednesday of a gunman who reportedly boasted of shooting seven victims in an al-Qaida-linked terror spree aimed at “bringing France to its knees.”

Hundreds of heavily armed police cordoned off streets around an apartment building in the southwestern city of Toulouse after a pre-dawn raid to arrest the suspect, Mohamed Merah, erupted into a firefight. Three police were wounded, the suspected holed up in the apartment and negotiations with the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent dragged on for hours.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah was a self-taught radical Salafi who expressed glee at killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers. Merah had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, he said.

Merah was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch the 3 a.m. raid, Molins said.

In the negotiations, Merah “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 prosecutor said.

Late Wednesday, Interior Minister Claude Gueant told France-2 TV that Merah planned to turn himself in at night “to be more discreet.” Nearby street lights were turned off.

The gunman’s brother and mother were detained early in the day. 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-radicalize online since they are harder to find and track. Molins’ comments, however, marked the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.

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

“He wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Gueant told reporters. “He’s (also) after the army.”

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,” Molins said, adding also planned to attack two police officers. “He claims to have always acted alone.”

An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Merah had been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” Islamic views.

During the standoff, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders. The suspect’s apartment was on the ground floor of the postwar building, locals said.

French authorities said Merah threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but had more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in his car.

“The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials,” Gueant added, explaining authorities want to “take him alive ... It is imperative for us.”

Delage said a key to tracking Merah was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle he reportedly used in all three attacks — a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.

According to Delage, one of his brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.

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