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After long standoff, French terror suspect killed during police raid

 

The suspect in a radical Islam-linked killing spree in southern France was killed Thursday after police raided his apartment to end a 32-hour standoff, the French interior minister said.

Mohamed Merah, who holed up in an apartment in the southern city of Toulouse, was found in the apartment's bathroom and exchanged fire with police, the minister said. He apparently was shot in the head as he jumped out of a window.

"The killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence," Claude Gueant, the interior minister, said, adding that the RAID squad had "never seen an assault like it."

"Mohamed Merah jumped out the window, gun in hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground," Gueant said.

Gueant earlier said police wanted to capture Merah alive. Authorities say Merah has boasted about carrying out the shootings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers in three separate incidents over the last two weeks. They are believed to be the first incidents of killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.

Reuters reported that explosions and gunfire were heard for about four minutes as police special forces moved in on the apartment overnight. Authorities used gas to try and paralyze the suspect, the report said.

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.

Gueant said "it's rather strange that he never reacted" to the detonations.

Two or three gunshots were heard from the area of the apartment building overnight. The interior minister said the source of the gunshots was unclear.

Gueant arrived at the scene Thursday morning, as did silver-helmeted firefighters with first aid materials, including what appeared to be two stretchers. No information was reported about whether there were new injuries or whether that was just a precautionary measure.

Police were using their advantages -- numbers, firepower and psychological pressure -- in hopes of wearing down Merah, who had no water, electricity, gas or most likely sleep 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 Wednesday afternoon, then under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether, officials said.

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 Qaeda.

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.

Gueant 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.

Christian Etelin, Merah's lawyer, 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.

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

He said Merah 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.

The SITE Intelligence Group said a lesser-known jihadist group is claiming responsibility for the shootings in France.

SITE, which monitors jihadist messages on the Internet, said the group issued a statement in jihadist forums saying "Yusuf of France" led an attack Monday, the day of shootings that killed a rabbi and three Jewish children in Toulouse.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.