Explosions, gunfire at Toulouse police standoff

JOHANNA DECORSE SARAH DiLORENZO Associated Press Published:

TOULOUSE, France (AP) -- Loud explosions and sustained gunfire have been heard in Toulouse near the apartment where an Islamic extremist has been holed up in a 32-hour standoff with French police.

There was no way of immediately knowing whether the shooting was coming from the special police to intimidate the suspect or in an exchange volley with him.

The suspect, 24-year-old Mohamed Merah, has boasted of killing seven French citizens -- a rabbi, three Jewish children and three French paratroopers in an attempt to "bring France to its knees." They are believed to be the first killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.

Authorities said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, espoused a radical form of Islam and had been to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.

France's interior minister has said police wanted to capture him alive.

Elite police squads set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning -- some blew off the apartment's shutters -- in what officials described as a tactic aimed to pressure 24-year-old Merah to give up.

A new set of detonations, known as flash bangs, resounded at about 10:30 a.m. (0930 GMT).

Police were using their advantages -- numbers, firepower and psychological pressure -- in hopes of wearing down Merah, who has had no water, electricity, gas or most likely sleep, and perhaps no food, since the early hours of Wednesday.

Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah clung to his few remaining assets, like a small arsenal and authorities' hopes of taking him alive. He appeared to toy with police negotiators -- first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether, officials said.

"We still want him alive so he can be tried and so the families can mourn properly," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Europe 1 radio.

They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.

French authorities -- like others across Europe -- have long been concerned about "lone-wolf" attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who find radical beliefs online, since they are harder to find and track.

"Lone wolves are formidable adversaries," Gueant said.

He defended France's efforts to fight terrorism over the past decade, saying 700 people have been detained and about 60 "Islamists with terrorist tendencies" are currently in French prisons.

Merah's lawyer predicted a dramatic and somber end to the standoff.

"He wants to show he is exceptional, omnipotent, and this approach can only end up as something tragic," Christian Etelin said on news channel i-Tele on Thursday.

He said Merah had tried to join the military but was rejected. He said Merah was also disillusioned after a string of convictions for petty crimes and after efforts to reduce his sentences through work programs failed.

"He felt rejected by the periods of detention he was handed out, and for his wish to defend France in the army. Now, he is in a process of hate," Etelin said.

"He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people, and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees," prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference Wednesday.

He said the suspect had plans to kill another soldier -- prompting the police raid at around 3 a.m. Wednesday. After it erupted into a firefight, wounding two police, a standoff ensued, with on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted through the night.

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Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.