TOULOUSE, France - Police used overwhelming firepower Thursday to end the 32-hour siege of a killer whose murders of schoolchildren and soldiers traumatised France and briefly halted a presidential campaign.
The self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda militant died in an intense firefight as he tried to shoot his way out of his surrounded apartment as officers from special police forces moved in. An Al-Qaeda linked group, Jund al-Khilafah, meanwhile claimed responsibility for his shootings, US monitoring group SITE said.
The seven killings shocked France, home to western Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim minorities, and raised questions about intolerance and security failures in the midst of a hard-fought presidential election campaign. Mohamed Merah, who admitted shooting dead three soldiers and three children and a teacher at a Jewish school — murders he filmed with a video camera — opened fire on police after officers from the elite RAID force stormed his flat in the southwestern city of Toulouse.
Police said the 23-year-old burst out of the bathroom and shot at police before jumping out the window of his first-floor apartment, still firing as he fell, in a bid to escape.
France’s chief anti-terror prosecutor, Francois Molins, said Merah was shot in the head while wearing a black djellaba, a traditional loose-fitting North African robe, and a bullet-proof vest. He said police had been told to do everything possible to take Merah alive but had no choice when he opened fire “at an incredible rate”.
“He literally launched an assault, rushing forward with a Colt .45 and continuing to fire as he jumped through the window, until he was shot in the head,” Molins told journalists.
“He was dead by the time he hit the ground,” a police source told AFP, while Interior Minister Claude Gueant said: “A RAID officer who is used to this kind of thing told me that he had never seen such a violent assault.”
The surrounding streets of the residential area resounded with the cacophany of intense firing in a shattering finale to the standoff which began before dawn on Wednesday. A police source said around 300 shots were fired.
Molins said five officers were wounded during the operation, including two during the initial pre-dawn raid on Wednesday and three Thursday, but that none of the injuries were life threatening. He said police were searching for “any accomplices who may have convinced him to commit these acts or provided him with the means to commit them.” Merah’s body had been brought to a specialist site in Bordeaux and an autopsy would be conducted later Thursday, Molins said.
Merah, who told authorities he had been trained by Al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, had previously fought off repeated attempts to storm his apartment after he was tracked down early Wednesday.
President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed after the siege to crack down on extremism, saying he wanted legal action against people who regularly consult jihadist websites or travel abroad for indoctrination.
“Any person who habitually consults Internet sites which praise terrorism and which call for hatred and violence will be punished under criminal law,” he said in a televised address.
Any person who travels abroad for “indoctrination into ideologies which lead to terrorism” will be prosecuted, Sarkozy said, asking authorities to investigate the promotion of extremism in French prisons.
Molins had earlier described Merah as a cold-blooded killer with no remorse who had boasted of having “brought France to its knees”.
He said Merah had taken responsibility for the shootings, claiming to be avenging Palestinian deaths and opposing the French military’s involvement in Afghanistan and France’s ban on full-face veils.
And he said the militant had claimed to have been trained by Al-Qaeda in Waziristan, a tribal area of Pakistan known as a haven for Islamist insurgents connected to Taliban guerrillas.
Molins said he had gone to the region twice and on one occasion been arrested by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.
Officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan told AFP on Thursday that they could not immediately trace the gunman as having visited either country or having been held by US-led forces.
But SITE said in a statement: “Jund al-Khilafah, a jihadist group that had previously claimed attacks in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, claimed responsibility for the shootings in France.”
Police and prosecutors said earlier they had arrested Merah’s mother, brother and his brother’s girlfriend as part of the inquiry. Sources said Merah had been known to the domestic security service for some years.
Molins confirmed Thursday that Merah had filmed the killings with a camera attached to a chest harness and that officers had viewed the footage.
During the first shooting of a paratrooper on March 11, he can be heard saying “You kill my brothers, now I’m killing you” as he fired two bullets into his victim, Molins said.
During the March 15 attack that killed two other paratroopers in nearby Montauban, he can be seen gunning down the soldiers before driving off on a scooter shouting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is Greatest!), Molins said.
On Monday the gunman, again wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
The siege interrupted the hard-fought campaign for France’s April-May presidential vote, but Sarkozy’s campaign team said he would be resuming his re-election bid with a rally in the city of Strasbourg on Thursday evening.
Analysts said that after the incident security was likely to become a major issue in the campaign, so far dominated by the economy and immigration.
Socialist candidate Francois Hollande has been leading in polls to win a second-round runoff on May 6. but after initially trailing Sarkozy has caught up and they are running neck-and-neck for the April 22 first round.