PARIS, France — French police are engaged in a lengthy stand-off with the man suspected of shooting dead seven people, including four at a nearby Jewish school, at an apartment block in Toulouse.
French TV network BFM earlier reported that the suspect had been arrested inside the building, but Interior Minister Claude Gueant, who is at the scene, denied the information.
The suspect has been identified as 23-year-old Mohammed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin – who told police he was a mujahedeen and a member of al-Qaeda, France Info radio reported.
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Police have taken control of the top floors of the building, in Toulouse's northern Côte Pavée neighborhood, with residents evacuated via the roof, and then driven away in waiting buses.
Gueant told BFM TV that in exchange for a "walkie-talkie," Merah threw a .45 mm gun from his window.
This is understood to be the same weapon used to murder four people at the private Ozar Hatorah school on Monday, and three French paratroopers in Toulouse and Montabaun a week earlier.
Merah was still reportedly armed with a Kalashnikov, a mini-Uzi 9 mm machine pistol and several other handguns. Gueant told BFM his motive had been to "avenge Palestinian children and attack the French army."
Authorities have confirmed that French intelligence has been monitoring Merah for some time, and that he had previously been arrested in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for "common law crimes."
It is understood that three of Merah's family members, including his mother and two brothers, have been taken into police custody.
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Gueant told BFM that Merah had told French counter-terrorism forces that he would surrender in the afternoon. "We cannot be sure he will surrender, but we are confident the suspect is the man who carried out the killings in Montauban and Toulouse," Gueant said.
By late afternoon, French prosecutors said that Merah was planning to surrender in the late evening. The suspect is unusually talkative and seems to want to maintain dialogue with police, former police negotiator Laurent Combalbert told Europe 1 radio, adding that was a good sign.
Three officers from the elite police team known as RAID were hurt in this morning's operation, which began at 3 a.m. local time, France Info reported, adding that one of the officers was shot in the knee.
French authorities say Merah trained in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and was affiliated with Forsane Alizza, or Knights of Pride, an Islamic group dismantled by the French government.
He was known to the French domestic intelligence agency, Gueant said. French police identified him as a suspect after tracing an email sent to one of the soldiers killed, in response to an advert to sell a motorcycle, the BBC reported. The soldier was killed on March 11 as he waited for a man to come and look at the motorbike. Merah was then discovered to have had his own motorcycle repainted after the first two attacks, and to have sought advice on how to deactivate its built-in tracking device.
In an address to the nation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised French police for their "speedy investigation," and urged unity between France's Muslim and Jewish communities.
Sarkozy attended a memorial service this afternoon in Montauban, where two soldiers were killed and a third wounded by a gunman on a motorcycle on March 15. "This was not the death they had prepared for, this was not a death on the battlefield, it was a terrorist execution," Sarkozy said.
According to French prosecutors, the suspect was planning further murders. He had identified a soldier and two police officers as his next victim and planned to kill them on Wednesday, François Molins told a press conference.
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Following Monday's shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school, in Toulouse's Croix-Daurade neighborhood, France launched a massive manhunt.
According to reports, a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and driving a motor scooter pulled up in front of the school and shot a teacher and three children — two of them the teacher's own young sons.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing a small video camera around the attacker's neck, the French daily Liberation reported.
France has raised the terror alert in the Midi-Pyrénées region to its highest ever as a result of the attacks on the school and military targets.
The shootings have prompted an outpouring of emotion throughout the country and angered the Jewish community which claims the attacks are racially motivated.
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