Massive French manhunt after killings

2012-03-20 17:18

Toulouse - France struggled on Tuesday to grasp why a serial killer had gunned down three Jewish children in cold blood, triggering a massive manhunt and a bout of national soul-searching.

School pupils across the country joined public employees and lawmakers to observe a minute of silence for the victims of the gunman's latest attack, and the country's presidential race was effectively put on hold.

President Nicolas Sarkozy paid silent homage to the victims at a school in Paris close to a Holocaust memorial, and afterwards admitted that authorities had as yet no clue as to the identity or motivations of the killer.

Police believe that a single gunman was responsible for the murder of an off-duty paratrooper on March 11, of two of his comrades on Thursday and of a rabbi and three Jewish children in Monday's school attack in Toulouse.

"Anti-Semitism is obvious. The Jewish school attack was an anti-Semitic crime," Sarkozy told reporters at the Paris school after meeting children.

"But the soldiers? Was it because they were back from Afghanistan? Was it because they were from minorities? We don't know," he said. "We must be very cautious until we have arrested someone".

The three soldiers who died in last week's attacks were French citizens of North African origin, while another who was critically wounded in the attack was black and from the French West Indies.

On Monday, the same gunman - still riding a scooter and wielding a pair of automatic pistols - launched a controlled but vicious attack on a group of parents and children outside the Ozar Hatorah primary school.

Teacher Jonathan Sandler, 30, and his two sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, were shot dead in the street. The killer then ran onto the grounds and shot Miriam Monsonego, the seven-year-old daughter of the school director.


"When you grab a little girl to put a bullet in her head, without leaving her any chance, you're a monster. An anti-Semitic monster, but first of all a monster," Sarkozy said.

"Civilisation cannot guard us from the madness of certain men, from the barbarism of certain men. What strikes me most is the coldness with which he acted," the French leader said.

Shortly afterwards the bodies were taken from the school to be flown to Paris with their families, where they were to be joined by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and flown on to Israel to be buried on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the shooter may have recorded his crime with a sports video camera witnesses saw strapped to his chest and that he could be planning to put the grim footage on the internet.

During a tour of Toulouse to check beefed up security arrangements in the southwestern city, Gueant said the video clue would bolster what little information police are thought to have about the killer.

He appears to be "someone who is very cold, very determined, very in control of himself, very cruel".

French police have been scouring the internet for possible images from the killer, but Gueant said no trace had been found by Tuesday morning.

Four-day intervals

Police are concerned that the killer might strike again, having carried out three attacks at precise four-day intervals.

French authorities stepped up security at Jewish and Muslim schools following Monday's bloody assault, and Sarkozy has declared a maximum "scarlet" terror alert on the Midi-Pyrenees region.

Scarlet alert gives authorities widespread powers to disrupt daily life and implement sweeping security measures, including potentially closing rail terminals and airports or even halting water supplies.

Mixed police and military patrols can be ordered. It is the last step in the scale of terror alerts before declaring a formal state of emergency.

Israeli media warned of growing prejudice in Europe, with the Jerusalem Post saying that, since 2000, France's Jewish community had been "exposed to the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence since the Holocaust".

Campaigning in France's presidential election was disrupted - with a month to go before the first round of polling - with both the right-wing incumbent and main Socialist rival Francois Hollande curtailing their schedule.

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