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Toulouse shootings: police arrest man and corner suspect in early swoop - live updates

9:18 am - 03/21/2012
"Three police officers wounded in shoot-out during pre-dawn swoop in Toulouse to arrest suspects in Jewish school shooting"

1.36pm: Reuters notes both BFMTV and i-Tele are reporting that Merah has been arrested after a standoff lasting nearly 12 hours.

One police source who is not directly linked to the investigation confirmed the arrest to Reuters, but several other sources said they were not aware of it.

The TV channels cited police sources for the information, without providing further details. It was not immediately possible to confirm this.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to speak to the nation this afternoon.

1.22pm: Breaking news: BFMTV are reporting that Merah has been arrested ...

1.20pm: Angelique Chrisafis has been talking to people near the scene of the standoff in Toulouse. She has sent this dispatch:

On the streets near the apartment block under siege, several young men gathered who claimed they knew the suspect from Les Izards, a mixed neighbourhood of Toulouse where he had grown up. A 25-year-old French man, whose parents were born in Algeria, said: "I grew up with him. I'm totally shocked and surprised, I can't believe that he could do this. His mum was French of Algerian origin — she brought him up alone. He didn't have a dad. This has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, or with us, and I really hope that all the young people of our type of neighbourhood won't be sullied by this. It has always been hard enough living in France with prejudice but now it's going to be much worse."

Another man who said he was 24 and a warehouse worker, but did not give his name, said he knew the family, in particular the suspect's brother. He said: "I came down here because I wanted to see what was going on. I heard someone at work listening to the news say this morning, 'It's an Arab, It's an Arab' … He was the kind of kid who got into trouble, but he was a banal young guy. Over the past two years he had changed a lot. He wasn't into having fun, he became harder. He didn't really go to the mosque, he seemed more likely to meet people in obscure flats."

Many said they didn't know the suspect had moved to the Côte Pavée neighbourhood where the raid was taking place. The father of one resident in the block of flats said he had moved in at around the same time as his son about a year ago, and had helped him move a sofa but that he didn't know him well.

One woman said: "I knew his family and his mother, his father had died. There was nothing to suggest he would have acted like this. The North African community is doubly hit, first by the grief for the victims and what happened, and also that we're from the Magreb and people will be pointing fingers at us. I appeal to the French, don't mix up the whole community with what has happened. Never never has Islam said to kill people."

1.15pm: Merah has resumed talks with the police and appears very keen to try to explain himself.

His lawyer, meanwhile, says Merah was due to serve a month in prison for his driving offence, and was due up in court again in April.

1.13pm: A police official has told AP that officers will storm the flats unless Merah gives himself up as promised.

Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said the suspect has promised to turn himself into police by 2:30 pm (1330GMT).

Delage says if that doesn't happen, police will force their way in to try to take him by force. Hundreds of riot police are surrounding the building

1.04pm: A little more on that Reuters line (below) on Merah trying to join the army: according to BFMTV, he applied to join the French Foreign Legion in 2010 ...

1.01pm: Details of Merah's apparently normal life are beginning to emerge as reporters descend on his friends and neighbours.

Cedric Lambert, 46, father of an upstairs neighbour, said Merah was friendly and had helped them about 10 months ago to carry a heavy sofa upstairs.

"He was extremely normal," Lambert said.

A group of four 24-year-old men who said they were friends of Merah tried to go to his apartment block on Wednesday to persuade him to surrender but were stopped at a police roadblock.

All told a Reuters reporter he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan.

One friend who gave his name as Kamal, a financial adviser at La Banque Postale, said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together after meeting again two years ago. He said:

"He is someone who is very discreet. He is not someone who would brag and go around and say 'Oh look at my new girlfriend, look how great I am.' He is very polite and always well-behaved.

"He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day. There's nothing strange about that."

Another friend of Moroccan origin said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week.

Merah did not drink "but I don't think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot," Danny Dem said.

A third contemporary, who declined to give his name, said he went to primary school with Merah and they had remained friends.

"He likes football and motor-bikes like any other guy his age," said the man, dressed in a blue French national soccer shirt. "I didn't even know he prayed."

12.58pm: Guéant says Merah has "explained a lot about his itinerary" to police negotiators, adding: "His radicalisation took place in a salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Reuters is also quoting a security source who says Afghan intelligence officials passed details of Merah's identity to their French counterparts following his arrest in 2007.

12.44pm: Le Figaro reports that the crucial break in the manhunt seems to have come from a Yamaha dealer in Toulouse who remembered a young man asking how to disable the anti-theft GPS tracker on his T-Max scooter.

Christian Dellacherie, the proprietor of Yamaha Yam31, told the paper:

"The police were asking for precise details on the model of scooter used and the colour. It wasn't until Tuesday morning after the murders at the Toulouse school that one particular fact popped back into our memories - a client who was repainting his scooter had asked an employee in the workshop how to deactivate the tracker. We'd had that information for about a week, but it was only when the colour of the scooter changed between [the] Montauban [attacks] and [the] Toulouse [attacks] that it became an important factor."

12.33pm: Christian Etelin, a lawyer who represented Merah in court in Toulouse on 24 February for driving without a license, has told French BFMTV that Merah knew he was under surveillance since returning from Afghanistan, but was "extremely discreet about his political views".

Etelin described Merah as "by no means rigid or fanatical", and said he could never imagine him committing crimes of such "hardness and extremity … If you could say anything, it was that he was polite and courteous … quite sweet actually."

He also said Merah's mother — and his elder sister, to whom he was close — despaired of him somewhat.

He said Merah had been imprisoned at 18 for bag snatching in the entrance hall of a bank in 2005. Even so, he added, Merah was not someone who you could call violent.

Unlike a lot of others who grew up alongside him in that area in the north of the city, he was not involved in drugs. His thing was petty theft … As for political or religious beliefs, he was very discreet. He never said anything that might lead one to believe he had these views."

The lawyer said he was ready to try to talk to him but added that he feared the situation would end with Merah's death — either by his own hand of at those of the police.

12.22pm: Emma Graham-Harrison has more on the Afghan angle:

Jawed Faisal, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial governor, said:

I can't confirm it was the same person but there was someone in Kandahar prison with the name Mohammed Merah, who was famous as 'the French guy'. His father and grandfather had Afghan names, and he could pass as an Afghan. His father's name was Mohammad Seddiq, grandfather was Mohammad Shah.

"His crime was that he was captured laying IEDs, and he was sentenced to three years in jail, but only served five months of it when the prison break happened and he escaped.

"We don't know which part of Kandahar province he was caught in."

Faisal added that he didn't know how long Merah had been in Afghanistan or how long he stayed after prison break.

Lt Col Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the Nato-led coalition, said he was aware of reports that Merah had been held in an Afghan prison, but refered all questions to Afghan officials.

Time for a quick recap of what's happened in Toulouse and elsewhere today:

• Counter-terror police have surrounded a block of flats in Toulouse where the main suspect in the murders of three soldiers and four civilians is holed up

• The suspect, named as Mohammed Merah, is reported to have travelled to fight in Afghanistan and to have been jailed there before escaping in 2008

• The French government has confirmed Merah had been under surveillance by the security services

• Despite giving up a handgun, Merah is understood still to possess at least two machine guns

• Merah's family has been taken into "precautionary custody"

• President Sarkozy has appealed for unity, saying: "We must give in neither to discrimination nor revenge".

• The funerals of the four Jewish victims of the attacks has taken place in Jerusalem today.

12.05pm: Here's a bit of our report on the Afghan prison break in June 2008 during which Merah is alleged to have escaped:

Up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban militants, were on the run in Kandahar last night after a dramatic Taliban assault on the southern Afghan city's main prison.

The militants blew the prison gates open with a massive truck bomb and flooded inside, attacking the guards and freeing the inmates. A jubilant Taliban spokesman said the group had deployed 30 motorcycle mounted attackers and two suicide bombers.

11.45am: Claude Guéant, the French interior minister, says it seems that Merah was a petty criminal who was radicalised by an extremist group in Toulouse before travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But, Le Monde reports, Guéant is insistent that during the time Merah was monitored by the French security services, "nothing ever arose to suggest that he was preparing criminal activity".

11.30am: Reuters are firming up the picture on Merah's apparent time in Afghanistan. According to the Kandahar prison director, Merah was detained by security services on 19 December 2007 and was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in Kandahar province, the Taliban's birthplace.

Le Monde's reports would seem to suggest that Merah visited Pakistan and Afghanistan — where he was picked up by Afghan police — despite having already been detained and imprisoned in the latter country ...

11.19am: Details of the suspect's time in Afghanistan are still sketchy, but Le Monde is reporting that he went twice to Pakistan, once in 2010 and again 2011, to speak with groups of fighters based in the tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan. The paper claims that he trained in the camps there alongside the Pakistani Taliban, foreign jihadis and members of the Haqqani network — and that he even crossed the border into Afghanistan as part of groups sent to fight Nato troops.

It says he is understood to have stopped off in Waziristan before heading to Kandahar and Zabul in the south of Afghanistan. Interestingly, it also says that he was stopped by police on the outskirts of Kandahar city. Although he was not arrested, his presence in the region as a foreign national was unusual enough for the police to report him to the Afghan intelligence services, who reportedly then passed on the information to western intelligence services.

It's unclear how Le Monde's claims tally with those of the director of Kandahar prison.

11.16am: According to the Kandahar prison director, the suspect escaped in 2008 during an insurgent attack on the jail.

11.09am: The director of Kandahar prison in Afghanistan has identified the suspect as Mohammed Merah — a name that has also been given to AFP by a source close to the Toulouse investigation.

The prison director, Ghulam Faruq, has told Reuters that the man was arrested for planting bombs in Kandahar and sentenced to three years' imprisonment before he escaped during a mass Taliban jailbreak.

If this turns out to be true, the French governement and security services — who are understood to have been following the suspect for years — are going to face some very tough questions.

10.52am: Here's some quotes from Sarkozy's address the Elysee presidential palace, via Reuters:

We must be united. We must give in neither to discrimination nor revenge. I have brought together the Jewish and Muslim communities to show that terrorism will not manage to break our nation's feeling of community."

10.49am: The police must find out whether the suspect acted "alone, or in a small or larger group", according to Guéant, who is quoted by Le Monde. The interior minister says that the suspect's mother, two brothers and two sisters have been taken in by the police. One of the brothers, he says, "is also engaged in salafist ideology". The other members of the family have been taken into "precuationary custody". The mother is understood to have chosen not to try to get through to her son because she feared "he would remain deaf to her appeals".

10.38am: Angelique reports that the father of a man living in the block where the suspect is holed up has confirmed that his son and the residents of the other flats have been evacuated and taken to local police station

10.29am: Sarkozy has paid tribute to the "exceptional work" of the police and said he has been "profoundly moved" by recent events. He has also announced he will visit Toulouse before after attending this afternoon's memorial service for the soldiers who were killed in Montauban.

10.22am: President Sarkozy is reacting to today's events, saying that France should not give in to discrimination or vengeance after the shootings (Via Reuters).

10.16am: The French interior minister has revealed that the suspect "was followed for several years" by the DCRI, France's secret service. But he says there was no indication that he was preparing any criminal activity. Le Figaro is now reporting that the man has stopped talking to police.

10.09am: I've just spoken to the Guardian's Phoebe Greenwood, who has been at the funeral of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two sons, Gabriel and Arieh, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego, in Jerusalem.

There was a long list of very emotional speakers from both France and Israel and all have spoken with deep emotion about the shootings in Toulouse. The chief rabbi broke down in tears as he vowed that there would be vengeance for their deaths; that God will avenge their deaths. During his speech there were wails from the crowd."

One mourner told Phoebe that although the school was "a very safe place", the murders would make many Jews worried about security in Europe consider moving to Israel. She said:

Many of the people who are thinking about moving to Israel now certainly will."

9.37am: Le Figaro reports that the vehicle destroyed by the police was a van belonging to the suspect and that a small machine gun and other weapons were found inside it.

9.25am: Although eyes are fixed on events in Toulouse, today has already seen the burial — in Israel — of the rabbi and three children shot dead in Monday's attack. One Israeli official has described the attack as the act of "wild animals made crazy by their hatred". Reuters has this:

The victims' bodies were wrapped in burial shrouds in accordance with orthodox tradition after being flown overnight from France. The funeral took place in a hill-top cemetery at the entrance to Jerusalem.

"The Jewish people face wild and insatiable animals, wild animals made crazy by their hatred," the speaker of parliament, Reuben Rivlin, said in a eulogy at the burial site.

The victims were 30-year-old Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his children Gabriel, 4, and Arieh, 5, and the daughter of the school's principal, seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego.

"The entire house of Israel weeps over these murders," Rivlin said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who flew to Israel to attend the funeral, said at an earlier meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres that he had come to express "the solidarity of the French people with the Israeli nation" in its time of sorrow. He added:

"The blood of both our peoples was spilled in this murder."

9.21am: Angelique has clarified that the "communication device" for which the suspect gave up his pistol was a mobile phone. The BBC, meanwhile, are reporting that buses have been brought in to evacuate residents from the siege area and that a blast heard a little while ago was down to the police using a controlled explosion to move a car.

9.11am: In case it had escaped anyone's attention that the French presidential elections are just weeks away, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen has told French TV that the shootings are the result of France's mistaken policy in Afghanistan and said France should wage war against "these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children". (Via Reuters)

8.55am: A source close to the investigation has told AFP that the suspect's name is Mohammed Merah and he is a French national of Algerian origin. (via BBC)

8.45am: Here's a Googlemap showing the house where the siege is under way and also the Jewish school where three children and a rabbi were murdered on Monday.Click on the map to expand.

8.40am: Sky News' Mark Stone has posted this panoramic picture of the scene in Toulouse showing there's a media presence to match the police's.

8.30am: The BBC is reporting that scooters appear to have played a pivotal role in finding the suspect. He is believed to have been exchanged emails with one of the soldiers shot dead in last week's attacks and arranged a meeting at which the soldier was killed. He is also reported to have taken a scooter - the vehicle used in the murders - to be resprayed at a Toulouse garage following the first attacks.

8.25am: Reuters reports that the 24-year-old suspect threw his pistol from the window of the house in exhange for a "communication device". But according to Guéant, he still has an arsenal including an Uzi sub-machine gun and a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

"He said … he will turn himself in this afternoon," Gueant told BFM television, adding that authorities were determined to take the suspect alive so he could stand trial.

8.18am: Claude Guéant, the French interior minister, says the suspect has announced that he will turn himself in sometime in afternoon. But it also appears that the man, who threw a pistol out of the window a little while ago, has other weapons around him.

8.15am: According to Le Monde, officers from the French police's counter terrorism unit, Raid (which stands for Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion - or Research, Assistance, Intervention, Deterrence) are conducting today's operation.

8.10am: According to the BBC, who are quoting the French interior minister, Claude Guéant, the suspect is negotiating with police and has thrown a Colt 45 pistol out of the window (police have previosuly identified a .45 calibre pistol as a weapon used in all three attacks).

7.57am: As Reuters points out, immigration and Islam have been major themes of the election campaign as Sarkozy tries to woo supporters of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Analysts say the shootings could transform the election debate and possibly tone down the populist rhetoric.

Jean Marc, a 56-year-old restaurant owner in the city who declined to give his last name, said he believed the crisis would benefit the far right or Sarkozy in the election.

"The Socialists don't talk about this stuff and it shows they don't know what they are doing. [The police] need to get this guy."

7.54am: A police source has told Reuters that officers could launch an assault if the standoff lasts for some time, adding:

"There are more and more people around, so this creates a dangerous situation."

7.51am: The wires are also reporting that a package bomb has exploded at the Indonesian Embassy in Paris today, causing minor damage but no injuries.

A Paris police official said an employee at the embassy discovered a suspicious package and stepped back in time before exploded. There was minor damage to a window but no injuries, the official said.

Indonesia's foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, says it is too early to say whether there is any link between the mail bomb and the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse. (Via AP)

7.48am: Here's some background from AP:

For years the main terrorist threat that French authorities have been concerned about has been al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which grew from an extremist group in the former French colony of Algeria.

French officials have been worried that the group may try to conduct an action in France ahead of presidential elections in April and May, a counterterrorism official told the Associated Press this week. So far, it has never succeeded in reaching across the Mediterranean Sea to strike in Europe.

While the Toulouse raid was under way, the bodies of the four victims of the school shooting arrived in Israel for burial. The bodies of the rabbi, two of his children and a daughter of the school's principal were accompanied to Israel by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. They landed early today.

7.43am: The scale of the police response is, understandably, huge. Angelique has spoken to a police trade union rep on the ground, who's told her that at least 300 police are involved in the operation

7.41am: Angelique adds:

In a neighbouring street to the stand off, Marc Stulman, local general secretary of the Jewish umbrella group, the Crif, said he had been briefed by the interior minister 20 mins ago.

He said the suspect is still holed up in his home and that there had been an exchange of gunfire this morning. He added there was "immense relief" in Toulouse this morning that police had located the suspect:

"People can go to school this morning as normal. And we hope tomorrow will be a better day."

7.37am: The Guardian's Paris correspondent, Angelique Chrisafis has just sent this dispatch from Toulouse:

On the leafy neighbouring streets, lined with smart houses with front gardens, residents were in shock. One local said he had spoken by phone to the couple who lived in the flat directly opposite the suspect. He said:

They don't know what's going on, they are in their bedroom hiding under their bed, terrified. Just after 3am they heard a commotion, the man shouted down to the police 'I have seen you!' and began firing a gun. They don't know the man well, they said they just used to pass him on the stairwell."

7.34am: Good morning. People are waking up to the news that a man has been arrested over the Toulouse shootings while another is engaged in an armed stand-off with police. Three officers were injured in a shoot-out during the swoop on a house in Toulouse on Wednesday morning, police said.

Reports quoted police as saying the man barricaded inside the house had told them he wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children. He was described as a French national with an Algerian mother. The suspect already arrested is said to be his brother.

Heavily armed police in bullet-proof vests and helmets cordoned off the residential area where the raid was taking place. Witnesses at the scene heard several shots at about 3.40am local time.

This is a continuation of this story. Thank you to sobota for providing a better, English-language source.

edit: News that the killer contacted FRANCE 24, confirming claimed ties with Al Qaeda and saying the shootings so far are "only the beginning".
lucciolaa 21st-Mar-2012 02:25 pm (UTC)
Well, the shooter claims he did it to avenge Palestinian deaths, but I'm worried that his statement and placing 'al Qaeda' in the first sentence of the article is only going to invite more Islamophobia and make a lot of people really angry with a larger group of people who are otherwise uninvolved.

idk I see this as the work of one nutty extremist, but the general public might not, which is what makes me anxious.
chaya 21st-Mar-2012 02:29 pm (UTC)
The shooter has specifically mentioned Al Qaeda. He might be bragging/exaggerating his ties but I don't think you can blame the media for reporting those claims.
myrana 21st-Mar-2012 02:35 pm (UTC)
I get what you're saying, but if you follow the link at the end of the post (this one), the shooter contacted a journalist, stated that he was affiliated with Al Qaeda, and that further attacks have been planned in Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

Like you, I really hope that this doesn't incite more Islamophobia, but that's what the shooter said. So I don't see anything wrong with articles reporting that he claims to have done it in the name of Al Qaeda because, well... he has claimed that. :/
lucciolaa 21st-Mar-2012 02:49 pm (UTC)
Ah, see, I've only read a couple of articles that said he had 'bragged' about being affiliated with al Qaeda, but that's about it. ty
myrana 21st-Mar-2012 03:05 pm (UTC)
No problem - yeah, there's a lot of information flying around at the moment, so it's kind of hard to establish anything 100%. Right now, for example, police are actually denying he's been arrested, apparently the siege is still ongoing? Lots of contradictory stuff out there.
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