TOULOUSE, Mar 21 – French police surrounded a house Wednesday where a man suspected of a series of deadly shootings was holed up, claiming he had carried out the attacks to avenge Palestinian children.
Two officers were wounded as shots rang out in the ongoing operation to arrest the suspect, thought to be a French national of North African origin who declared that he was a member of the Al-Qaeda network, officials said.
Armed officers investigating three recent attacks in which a scooter-riding serial killer gunned down seven people in cold blood, including three Jewish children, sealed off an address in the Cote Pavee residential district of the southern city of Toulouse.
Shots rang out periodically, an AFP reporter at the scene said. The area was cordoned off by police, including members of the RAID special weapons squad. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the siege was continuing.
Gueant said the 24-year-old suspect had spoken to officers through his door, and had declared himself to be a “mujaheedeen” or Islamic warrior fighting to avenge Palestinian children killed in the conflict with Israel.
The victims of the attacks were three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi and the police raid came on the day that they were to be buried.
The minister confirmed two officers had been lightly wounded in the raid, during which the suspect had shot through a door.
“The suspect’s mother was brought to the scene. She was asked to make contact with her son, to reason with him, but she did not want to, saying she had little influence on him,” Gueant said.
“This person has made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past … and says he belongs to Al-Qaeda and says he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and to attack the French army,” he added.
“He has links with people involved in jihadism and salafism,” he added, referring to two strains of Muslim thought that have influenced Al-Qaeda.
Gueant said the suspect’s brother had been detained while checks were carried out, although he confirmed that only one suspect had been at the scenes of the three shooting attacks carried out since March 11.
“Today there are several operations being carried out at the same time in the Toulouse metropolitan area,” prosecutor Olivier Christen said.
Neighbours leaving the cordoned area said the suspect was on the first storey of a small building on the usually quiet housing estate. They said the first shots had run out around 3:00 a.m. (0200 GMT).
He is thought to be a 24-year-old man who had previously travelled to the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan which is known to house al-Qaeda safehouses, one of the officials told AFP.
“He was in the DCRI’s sights, as were others, after the first two attacks,” an official said, referring to France’s domestic intelligence service, adding: “Then the criminal investigation police brought in crucial evidence.”
Another source close to the inquiry said police were confident they had tracked down the right suspect and added: “He’s one of those people who have come back from warzones that always worry the intelligence services.”
If the suspect is proved to have been responsible for the killings, it would bring to an end one of the most intense manhunts in French history and help calm tensions after the series of attacks disrupted a presidential election.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter which he had advertised online, revealing in the ad his military status.
Imad Ibn Ziaten, a 30-year-old staff sergeant in the 1st Airborne Transportation Regiment, was shot in the head at close range with a .45 calibre pistol, a method that was to become the suspect’s signature.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down — two of them fatally — in the same fashion in a street in the garrison town of Montauban, 45 kilometres (29 miles) away.
The dead — Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, both of the 17t Parachute Engineering Regiment — were French soldiers of North African Arab origin.
Arab soldiers are prized targets for groups like Al-Qaeda, which regards Muslims who fight for Western armies as traitors.
Then on Monday the shooter, still 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.
Anti-terrorist magistrates said the same gun and make of scooter was used in all three attacks and noted that the three attacks were carried out at precise four-day intervals.
On Wednesday, the bodies of the four Jewish victims arrived in Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego arrived at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv shortly before dawn. They were to be buried later in the day.
The slain French soldiers were also to be buried later in the day, in Montauban, at a ceremony to be attended by Presidency Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival for the presidency Francois Hollande.
Ibn Ziaten will be buried in Morocco, the Moroccan consul general in Toulouse was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
Both Sarkozy and Hollande temporarily suspended their campaigns following Monday’s attack, as France was traumatised by an unprecedented series of hate crimes. The first round of the vote is due on April 22, with a run-off on May 6.