France standoff with gunman reaches deadly end
Updated at 11:04 a.m. ET
(CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France - An Islamic extremist who boasted of killing seven people to strike back at France died after being shot in the head by police as he jumped out of his apartment after a fierce gunfight with police, authorities said.
His dramatic death ended a more than 32-hour standoff with an elite police squad trying to capture him alive. The suspect, 23-year-old Mohamed Merah, was wanted in the deaths of three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi all killed since March 11 in what he reportedly told police was an attempt to "bring France to its knees."
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that Merah appeared to be a very happy, normal 24-year-old fellow in a video that was shot by a friend in the past several years. But he had a long string of delinquent crimes, and it appears he was quietly being radicalized in by Muslim extremists.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent who claimed links to al Qaeda, burst out of his bathroom when police entered his apartment Thursday morning, wildly firing his handgun about 30 times and jumping out an apartment window.
Merah continued to fire "until he was hit by a retaliatory shot from the RAID (elite police unit), which felled him with a bullet to the head," Molins said.
Merah had filmed all three killings, and claimed to have posted them online. Police have viewed the videos.
The prosecutor said the gunman, in his first killing of a paratrooper March 11, is heard on the video saying "You kill my brothers; I kill you."
When killing two other paratroopers four days later in the nearby town of Montauban, he cried out "Allahu Akbar," or "God is great" in Arabic.
A volley of gunfire resounded Thursday throughout the neighborhood in the southwestern city of Toulouse as police stormed the apartment, and two police officers were wounded in the firefight.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said an investigation was under way to see if the suspect had any accomplices.
Sarkozy also said anyone who regularly visits "websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law." He promised a crackdown on anyone who goes abroad "for the purposes of indoctrination in terrorist ideology."
Police said, during hours of negotiations Wednesday when the standoff first began, Merah admitted to being proud of the seven slayings he carried out in three motorcycle shooting attacks around the southwestern city of Toulouse. They are believed to be the first killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.
Authorities said Merah espoused a radical form of Islam and had been to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda.
On one of the two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan that Merah is believed to have made, he was arrested by Afghan forces on charges which remain unconfirmed. CNN reported Wednesday that Afghan forces offered to hand him over to the U.S. military, but the Americans declined and suggested he be handed instead to French forces, given his nationality. According to the CNN report, it was French forces who put him on a plane back to France.
On Thursday, elite police squads set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning some blew off the apartment's shutters in what officials described as a tactic aimed to pressure Merah to give up. A new set of detonations, known as flash bangs, resounded at 10:30 a.m. (5:30 a.m. ET), portending the end to the standoff.
"The killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence," Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding that the RAID squad had "never seen an assault like it."
The volley of gunfire resounded throughout the neighborhood Thursday morning, and two police officers were wounded in the firefight.
Gueant said police "went in by the door, taking off the door first. They also came in by the windows."
He said police used special video equipment to search the second-floor apartment but found him nowhere, until the special instruments surveyed the bathroom.
"The killer came out" firing "with extreme violence," Gueant told reporters. Police "tried to protect themselves and fired back."
"Mohamed Merah jumped out the window, gun in hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground," Gueant said.
Gueant said the suspect had told the police Wednesday night that he would not surrender and that he would kill police if they try to arrest him.
That was the turning point in the decision to move in, the minister said.
Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah clung to his few remaining assets, like a small arsenal and authorities' hopes of taking him alive. On Wednesday, he appeared to toy with police negotiators first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then saying he would surrender under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether.
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