French cops corner al-Qaeda suspect

2012-03-21 07:07

Shots rang out as French police surrounded a self-declared member of the al-Qaeda network holed up in a house after a series of shooting attacks that shocked the nation.

Police sources say officers investigating three attacks in which a gunman killed three soldiers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi sealed off an address in the Cote Pavee residential district of Toulouse.

Six or seven shots rang out, reporter at the scene said, but the area had been sealed off by police from the RAID special weapons squad and it was not immediately clear whether the siege was over.

“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,” Interior Minister Claude 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,” Gueant said, as the operation continued.

Briefing reporters near the scene, the minister said that the suspect’s brother had been arrested.
Anti-terror prosecutors said several operations were underway. Two police were slightly wounded as the raids got underway.

A source close to the inquiry said earlier that the suspect had exchanged words with the RAID team and had declared himself to be a member of al-Qaeda, the armed Islamist group founded by late Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.

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 said.

“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. “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 advert his military status.

Imad Ibn-Ziaten, a 30-year-old staff sergeant in the First 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, 45km away.

The dead – Corporal Abel Chennouf (25) and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade (23), both of the 17th 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 two 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 attacks were carried out at precise four-day intervals.

Today, 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 the capital, 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.

Both men temporarily suspended their campaigns following Monday’s attack, as France was traumatised by an unprecedent series of hate crimes.

The first round of the vote is due on April 22, with a run-off on May 6.

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