(CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France - The French Interior minister says Mohammed Merah, the prime suspect in seven murders in and around Toulouse, died Thursday morning in a jump from an apartment window after "shooting madly" at police who raided the building.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said police entered the apartment Thursday after hearing nothing from Merah overnight, only to be ambushed by the suspect who "came out of the bathroom shooting madly at everybody.""At the end, Mohammed Merah jumped out of the balcony window with a weapon in hand, continuing to shoot. He was found dead on the ground below," said Gueant. One of the elite officers involved in the raid said, according to Gueant, "he had never seen such ferocity." Merah had boasted of bringing France "to its knees" with an al Qaeda-linked terror spree that killed seven people before taking refuge in the surrounded apartment for a 32 hour standoff.
Riot police set a series of three large explosions outside the apartment building, and then gunfire was heard and there were reports that gas was fired into the apartment to try and subdue the suspect before the special operations officers entered the building for the raid which ended with Merah's death and three police officers injured, one of them seriously.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said earlier in the morning, before the explosions and gunfire, that it was "unclear" whether the suspect was even still alive. He had not contacted negotiators since Wednesday night, raising suspicions that he may have committed suicide.One of the last things Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, told police, according to Gueant, was that he wanted to die "with a gun in hand."
CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports that Merah appears 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. (To see Palmer's report, click on the video in the player above)
Authorities say he had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he claimed to have received training from al Qaeda.
The year in which that arrest and return to France took place remains unclear, but an Afghan prison official in Kandahar told CBS News on Wednesday that a north African man of the same name was jailed in 2008 on bomb-making charges, but escaped later that year. It is believed that Merah also traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2011.
They said he told negotiators he killed a rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers last week to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan, as well as a government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.
"He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees," Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference.
French authorities like others in Europe have long been concerned about "lone-wolf" attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who self-radicalize online since they are harder to find and track. Still, it was the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.
Merah espoused a radical brand of Islam and had been to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region twice and to the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan for training, Molins said.
He said the suspect had, prompting the police raid.
The standoff began after a police attempt at around 3 a.m. Wednesday to detain Merah erupted into a firefight. Two police were wounded, triggering on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted into the night.
As darkness fell, police cut electricity and gas to the building, then quietly closed in to wait out the suspect. It was not clear from Gueant's statement what prompted the decision to launch the definitive raid on Thursday morning, given knowledge that Merah was a skilled gunman, and was well-armed.
The gunman's brother and mother were detained early Wednesday. Molins said the 29-year-old brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq, but was never charged.
The siege was part of France's biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France's worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers beginning March 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.
Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, according to a regional French prosecutor.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Merah had been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" Islamic views.
French authorities said Merah threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but had more weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said other weapons had been found in his car.