By Alex Lantier in France:
French police in armed standoff with alleged Toulouse gunman
22 March 2012
Yesterday evening, an armed standoff continued in Toulouse between Mohamed Merah, the alleged gunman in a spate of shootings in southern France, and elite police units. Officials claim he is responsible for the deaths of seven people in three attacks since March 11—three paratroopers in two shootings in Toulouse and nearby Montauban, and four civilians in an attack Monday on the Jewish Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse.
A RAID (Search, Assistance, Intervention and Deterrence) unit attacked Merah in his apartment shortly after 3AM yesterday. He fired back, reportedly wounding two officers. After a standoff during the day, police again assaulted the apartment around midnight, blasting away a door and blowing a hole in a wall.
Authorities assert that Merah, aged 23, has Al Qaeda sympathies. They insist that he carried out the killings alone. Based on the wildly contradictory reports circulating in the media, however, it is unclear whether any of these statements are true.
Merah bears little physical resemblance to eye-witness descriptions of the perpetrator in the Montauban shooting. Witnesses said the gunman was “corpulent.” They also said they saw a tattoo and scar on his left cheek when the visor of his motorcycle helmet flipped open. However, pictures of Merah released to the media show a slender man with no facial hair or markings.
Nor are reports of Merah’s links to Al Qaeda any more convincing.
If someone is really an Al Qaeda member, then you don’t expect him to act alone, as the police claims.
Reports that the suspect wanted to sell a videotape of the Toulouse atrocity to the media, looking as if money was the motive, also don’t point in the direction of Al Qaeda.
They rely on conflicting accounts and an alleged confession in a call placed from a public telephone booth to the night editor of France24 television, Ebba Kalondo. French officials claimed to be “98 percent” sure that the caller was Merah. Kalondo’s story was widely reported as fact by French media and TV outlets.
Interior Minister Claudé Guéant said that Merah had been followed for years by the DCRI (Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence) after he traveled to Afghanistan in 2007. Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq said Merah was jailed by Afghan forces on December 19, 2007 for planting bombs in Kandahar. Pakistani officials told Reuters that Merah had never been arrested in Kandahar, however, and claimed to have “no information about him.” Afghan officials told the BBC that the man jailed in Kandahar was probably someone else with the same name.
French counter-terrorism official François Molins said Merah was arrested again in Afghanistan last year and returned to France by the US. Anonymous American officials contradicted this account, telling the BBC that French forces flew Merah back to France.
According to a friend of Merah interviewed by Le Figaro, however, he worked primarily as an auto body repairman in Toulouse. He spent a few months in jail three years ago for “petty theft,” after which he was followed by police. He unsuccessfully tried to join the French army. Merah’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, said Merah was never involved in “violent delinquency.”
Finally, reports of investigations of Merah’s belongings throw in question claims that he was acting alone. Authorities reported they are searching for a Renault Mégane car belonging to him and containing revolvers, UZI automatic weapons and shotguns. They also said he owned a Renault Clio car containing weapons, as well as “three safe houses” in the Toulouse area. It is unclear how Merah could possibly have afforded this, as investigators told Le Figaro that his income was “on the level of welfare payments.”
If these accounts are to be believed, however, a man closely watched by French intelligence and police was somehow left free to carry out a murderous rampage over 10 days in Toulouse and nearby Montauban. He was even apparently in contact with police sources in the run-up to the attack on the Ozar Hatoreh school.
Live Coverage: Toulouse siege of suspect in Jewish school shooting enters second day: here.
UPDATE: suspect Merah dead: here.
Toulouse cannot be explained as an isolated hate crime or the deed of one fanatic: here.