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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

French Jewish School Assassin Is Islamic Extremist Linked To Jihadist Group

French Police Say They Have Cornered Suspect in School Shooting

A 23-year-old man suspected in the methodical killings of four men and three children in this region over the past 10 days barricaded himself in a small apartment building in Toulouse early Wednesday as negotiators tried to secure his surrender.

In a standoff that stretched past 12 hours, he fired several heavy volleys at the hundreds of police officers ringing the building, injuring two, though neither seriously. At one point the suspect threw a .45-caliber pistol from the window, the same kind used in each of the three attacks.

Officials identified the man in French media reports as Mohammed Merah, a French national of Algerian descent. Interior Minister Claude Guéant, speaking at the site, said the man told negotiators that he belonged to Al Qaeda and that the attacks were meant to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest French military deployments abroad.

Investigators believe the suspect was the motorcyclist behind the killings of three paratroopers in Toulouse and the nearby city of Montauben, all three of Arab descent, over the past 10 days ago. They also believe he conducted an attack on Monday outside a Jewish school that killed a rabbi, two of his young children, and an 8-year-old girl. The gunman held the girl by the hair to execute, pausing to switch to a 9-millimeter gun when his .45 jammed. Investigators believe he was wearing a camera around his neck at the school to record his murders.

The chief editor of France 24 said in a televised interview that she had spoken by telephone to a man who claimed to be the shooter in the hours before the police surrounded his building. “He was calm, was speaking in very good French and punctuated by Arabic expressions,” said the editor, Ebba Kalondo. She said he spoke of planning more attacks and that he intended to post video of his killings online.

The suspect had traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and called himself a mujahedeen, or freedom fighter, and had been under surveillance by the French domestic intelligence service for several years, Mr. Guéant said, “though nothing whatsoever allowed us to think he was at the point of committing a criminal act.” He became a suspect on Monday afternoon, after investigators traced an IP address, used in connection with the killing of the first paratrooper 10 days ago, to the suspect’s mother, according to Pierre-Henry Brandet, a spokesman for Mr. Guéant.

Aviv Zonabend, the vice president of the local branch of the Crif, France’s most prominent Jewish organization, who met with Mr. Guéant on Wednesday morning, gave a slightly different account, saying that investigators apparently had been unable to locate the suspect before the shootings on Monday.

The police action started shortly after 3 a.m. on Wednesday after lengthy planning late Tuesday night, officials said.

The suspect’s mother was taken to the building by police in the hope that she would help persuade the man to surrender, Mr. Guéant said, but she declined to speak to him, saying that he had refused to listen to her in the past. The suspect’s brother, who was known locally for his radical religious ideology, was detained with a friend outside Toulouse for questioning on Monday, Mr. Guéant said, without giving details. The mother was also being questioned Wednesday afternoon, according to the prosecutor leading the investigation.

President Nicolas Sarkozy presided over a funeral service for the three paratroopers in nearby Montauban on Wednesday. A fourth paratrooper was critically wounded in the attacks in that city; he was black.

The bodies of those killed at the school were flown overnight to Israel for burial. They were Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, 30, a religious instructor; his two sons, Arye, 6, and Gabriel, 3; and Miriam Monsonego, 8, the daughter of the school’s principal. Rabbi Sandler was a French citizen; the three children had dual French-Israeli nationality.

Mr. Sarkozy had ordered the region’s security alert to the high level of “scarlet,” giving security forces wide powers that include the authority to close some public places, halt and search buses and trains and deploy combined patrols of police officers and soldiers. Police officers were ordered to guard Muslim and Jewish schools and places of worship across the region.

A French lawyer in Toulouse told the BFMTV broadcaster that he had represented a teenage Mr. Merah multiple times for relatively petty crimes. The lawyer, Christian Etelin, said, “I defended him multiple times in juvenile court for thefts and for violence, for the kinds of delinquency that is common in these neighborhoods.”

Before the authorities said on Wednesday that their prime suspect claimed ties to Al Qaeda, many analysts had speculated that he might have been motivated by extreme right-wing passions coinciding with the presidential elections.

After the shootings on Monday, the main candidates in the French presidential campaign, including Mr. Sarkozy, suspended their campaigns as political debate swirled around whether the killings were somehow inspired by anti-immigrant rhetoric. The campaign has been long and heated, and Mr. Sarkozy has been trying to win back voters who drifted to the far-right National Front party.

It remained unclear what the effect of the killings would be on the election, which is only a few weeks away. Nor was it clear whether they would further stoke anti-Muslim rhetoric in the country. Muslims complain widely of feeling vilified by some political elements, on the right in particular, and the anti-immigration far right has been gaining unprecedented popularity in recent months. Some analysts have suggested that the deaths could cause a calming of the political discourse.

In Paris on Wednesday morning, Mr. Sarkozy met with Jewish and Muslim leaders and called for restraint and solidarity among the populace. “We must be united,” he said in a brief address. “We must yield neither to easy falsehoods nor to vengeance.”

Before meeting with Mr. Sarkozy, Richard Prasquier, the national head of Crif, the Jewish organization, said: “It is absolutely excluded that we confuse this character — and the Islamist, jihadist, Al -Qaeda-linked movement he represents — and the Islam of France, which is a religion like all other religions.”

“These acts are in total contradiction with the foundations of this religion,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, who also met with Mr. Sarkozy.

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Sources: CNN, NY Times, Youtube, Google Maps

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