TOULOUSE: French police said on Tuesday that it had shot dead a self-declared al Qaeda militant wanted for a series of killings of soldiers and Jews, ending a tense 32-hour siege in the south of France.
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, also tried to shoot his way out of the siege in Toulouse after police from the elite RAID force entered his flat.
Police said the 23-year-old burst out of the bathroom, opening fire on officers before jumping out the window of his first-floor apartment, still firing as he fell, in a desperate bid to escape.
“He was killed by RAID shooters while trying to escape,” a police source told AFP. “He was dead by the time he hit the ground.”
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah was “shooting very violently” when he emerged from the bathroom.
“A RAID officer who is used to this kind of thing told me that he had never seen such a violent assault,” Gueant said.
“RAID officers of course tried to protect themselves, to return fire, and then in the end, Mohamed Merah jumped out of the window with a gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground,” he said.
Around 300 bullets were fired during the shootout, police sources 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 end of 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, adding that he was also asking authorities to investigate the promotion of extremism in French prisons.
France’s chief anti-terror prosecutor, Francois Molins, had earlier described Merah as a cold-blooded killer with no remorse.
“He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims and even boasted of having brought France to its knees,” Molins told reporters on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the prosecutor confirmed that Merah had filmed all of the killings with a camera attached to a chest harness, and that officers had viewed the footage and confirmed it recorded the crimes.
Molins 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.
He said Merah 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.
Gueant said Merah received direct orders from al Qaeda.
“He had even been suggested to carry out a suicide mission and refused, but agreed to carry out a general mission to commit an attack in France,” Gueant told TF1 television.
Police and prosecutors said earlier they had arrested Merah’s mother, brother and his brother’s girlfriend as part of the inquiry. Sources said the suspect had been known to the domestic security service for some years.
On Wednesday, the Jewish victims of the attacks were buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin was killed after arranging to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban and two died.
The pair — Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, — were also French soldiers of North African origin.
On Monday the shooter, 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.
A 15-year-old wounded in the attack was in stable condition, his uncle said Thursday.
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.