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French police have identified the man they believe is responsible for the murders of seven people in south-west France as 23-year-old Mohammed Merah. What do we know about him?
Mohammed Merah, the man suspected of shooting dead seven people in south-west France over the past week, had reportedly long been known to French intelligence services. What have we learned about him so far?
Mohammed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, was born in October 1988, according to French radio station Europe 1. He grew up on a housing estate in Toulouse, one of five children raised by his mother alone, Le Point magazine reported. One of his brothers has been taken into custody in connection with the attacks, while his mother, called to his apartment to help police persuade him to surrender, said she had little influence over her son.
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Merah was trained as a car mechanic, but had apparently been out of work for several months. He has 18 minor offenses on his record, for which he served two short prison terms between 2007 and 2009, the lawyers that represented him told Le Point.
He twice attempted to enroll in the French Army, defense officials told Agence France Presse: first in early 2008, when he was rejected due to his criminal record, then again in late 2010, when he applied to the elite Foreign Legion but dropped out of the assessment process after just one day.
Links to Afghanistan and Pakistan
Merah is believed to have made several trips to both Afghanistan and Pakistan, though the details are not yet clear. In December 2007, he was arrested and charged with planting bombs in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, for which he was sentenced to three years in jail, local prison chief Ghulam Faruq told Reuters. Merah apparently escaped in a jail break led by the Taliban in June 2008, along with several hundred other inmates.
A Pakistani official told the news agency that Merah had never been arrested there, and was unknown to the domestic intelligence service.
On his return to France, Merah was placed on the French authorities' list of suspected Islamic extremists, an intelligence official told French newspaper Libération.
Merah describes himself as a mujahedeen (holy warrior) and member of Al Qaeda, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant told the press this morning. The suspect reportedly told police that he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and punish the French military for its operations overseas. He has links to strict Salafi Islam and jihadist movements, Guéant said.
Merah had only recently become "politicized," his lawyer Marie-Christine Ételin told Le Point. He continued to frequent nightclubs and did not consistently wear the beard traditional for devout male Muslims, other asociates told the magazine.
A man claiming to be the Toulouse shooter last night called state-owned TV network France 24 in an apparent attempt to explain himself. According to the journalist who spoke to the caller – who may or may not have Merah – he was calm, eloquent and polite. He said he had long planned the attacks as a protest against France's ban on the burqa, its military intervention, and "our little Palestinian brothers and sisters."
The caller told France 24 that he saw only two possible outcomes: either he would serve a prison term "with my head held high," or he would die "with a smile on my face."
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