French police arrest siege gunman - reports

2012-03-21 15:52

Toulouse - A gunman suspected of killing seven people, including three Jewish children, in the name of al-Qaeda was arrested after a 12-hour police siege in the city of Toulouse, French television channels reported on Wednesday.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant denied that the gunman was arrested, a ministry spokesperson said.

"Claude Gueant denies the arrest of the main suspect," interior ministry spokesperson Pierre-Henry Brandet told Reuters.

The suspect remains holed up in an apartment in Toulouse, surrounded by police.

In an unfolding drama that riveted France and the world, about 300 police, some in body armour, had cordoned off a four-storey building in a suburb of Toulouse where the 24-year-old Muslim shooter, identified as Mohamed Merah, had been holed up.

President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to speak to the nation shortly.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman was a French citizen of Algerian origin who had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan and had told police negotiators he had carried out his attacks to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of the French army's involvement in Afghanistan.

Escaped Afghan prison

Authorities in Afghanistan confirmed that Merah had been arrested for bomb making in the lawless southern province of Kandahar in 2007 but escaped months later in a massive Taliban prison break.

Police removed other residents from the building and began evacuating other nearby homes. A police source had said earlier that authorities would not allow the siege to drag on indefinitely.

Sarkozy, running for re-election in five weeks time, said earlier that France should not give way to discrimination or vengeance after the shootings of a rabbi and the three children, and three soldiers of North African origin.

His warning came after far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival presidential candidate, said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism.

"Terrorism will not manage to break our nation's feeling of community," Sarkozy said after meeting Jewish and Muslim community leaders in the Elysee Palace in Paris. "We must stand together. We must not cede to discrimination or vengeance."

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  mohamed merah  |  nicolas sarkozy  |  france  |  french attacks

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