Official: French suspect sought more bloodshed
French police officers and a soldier stand close to the apartment building where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school was barricaded in Toulouse, France, March 21, 2012. / AP Photo
Updated 4:56 PM ET
(CBS/AP) A man claiming al Qaeda links and suspected in the killings of three Jewish children, a rabbi and three paratroopers had planned to kill another soldier imminently, prompting a major police raid on his apartment, a French prosecutor said Wednesday.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspected gunman remains holed up in the apartment in the city of Toulouse more than 13 hours after a standoff began before dawn. Talks are under way to secure his surrender.
In the negotiations, the suspect "expresses no regret, only that he didn't have time to have more victims. And he even bragged, he said, of bringing France to its knees," the prosecutor said.
"He had foreseen other killings, notably he foresaw another attack this morning, targeting a soldier," Molins said, adding also planned to attack two police officers. "He claims to have always acted alone."
The new allegations against the man come as details about his life emerged. Molins said the man, identified as Mohamed or Mohammad Merah, had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan in Pakistan. Molins added that his brother had been implicated in a network sending fighters to Iraq.
The suspect has told police he belonged to al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding the man was also angry about French military intervention abroad.
In an interview broadcast on French television network France24, Ebba Kalondo, an executive producer there, said she received a phone call from a man claiming to be the suspect. In the phone call, the man said he carried out the killings for the deaths of what he called "my little brothers and sisters in Palestine."
An Interior Ministry official told The Associated Press that Merah has been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Merah is a self-proclaimed member of the Forsan al-Izza or "Knights of Glory" group, which the French government banned in January following suspicion that it was recruiting Jihadists to Afghanistan.
Kalondo said the caller was also protesting against a French ban against wearing the Islamic veil and against the country's participation in the war in Afghanistan.
Gueant told reporters Merah is "less explicit" about why he killed French paratroopers. The paratroopers were of Muslim and French Caribbean origin, but the interior minister said the suspect told them the ethnic origin has nothing to do with his actions.
"He's after the army," Gueant said.
His travels to Afghanistan have contributed to some confusion over his background.
A person with a similar name was arrested in southern Afghanistan five years ago. The commander of a prison in Kandahar, Col. Ghulam Farouq, told CBS News a prisoner by the name of Mohammad Merah, of north African origin, was arrested in 2008 in connection with a bombing in Kandahar and sentenced to three years. He managed to escape later that year, along with about 600 other prisoners, in a brazen prison break staged by the Taliban.
Farouq told CBS News Kabul bureau chief Fazul Rahim that he cannot confirm the prisoner was the same man being pursued over the French shootings.
However, in Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Afghan government has claimed that no one by the suspect's name was registered in an Afghan prison, CBS Radio News correspondent Cami McCormick reports. The details surrounding the suspect's background remain "murky," Nuland said.
In neighboring Germany, which regularly tracks extremists who head to Afghanistan or Pakistan for paramilitary training, a senior intelligence official told the AP that he had never seen the name "Mohammad Merah" come up. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue.
In France, Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Molins said. He received two short prison sentences in 2007 and 2009, Wassef reports. Merah was born in Toulouse and grew up in the popular residential area of Les Izards in the northeastern part of the city.
As a teenager, Merah got caught up in petty crime, some of it involving violence, said his lawyer, Christian Etelin. But Etelin said the recent wave of deadly shooting attacks didn't fit the profile of the suspect he first represented in 2004.
"He was a polite and courteous boy" who used to work in a body shop, Etelin said.
The lawyer added that if Merah had dark secrets, "it remained clearly secret. He gave the impression of being in French social life."
However, Etelin also said he was aware that Merah had been monitored by authorities after he made a visit to Afghanistan two years ago.
Etelin said he knew Merah since he was about 17, and described his life as typical for many teenagers and young men in poor French housing projects who get involved in criminal activity.
"His mother couldn't control him, his father was totally absent, his sister ... also told me that she couldn't exercise any influence over him," the lawyer said.
Etelin last saw Merah in February, and "found him like someone who had gained in maturity."
But Merah "did not give the impression of someone hatching plans, retaining violence, absolutely not the air of someone letting you think of a certain fanaticism. Not at all."
Asked if he would defend him, the lawyer said, "If he asks me to defend him I would defend him because I want to talk to him, I want to understand. something escapes me."
According to Mehdi Nedder, an acquaintance at a nightclub where Merah partied a few weeks ago, nothing about Merah's social life in Toulouse before the French attacks made him stand out as a radical bent on sowing terror or even that he had radical leanings.
Nedder, 31, described Merah as a "normal young man."
"Three weeks ago he was in at a nightclub," Nedder told The Associated Press. "And this morning I hear we're talking about al Qaeda. How can you change like that in three weeks?"
A friend of Merah's who would only identify himself by his first name, Kamel, recalled playing soccer with him as the two grew up in Toulouse.
"(He) was respectful and generous," said Kamel, 24. "We never spoke about weapons, religion or politics, but cars, bikes, girls and sports."
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