Updated 6:43 a.m. Eastern
(CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France - Police sources told French media Thursday morning that a gunman who boasted of bringing France "to its knees" with an al Qaeda-linked terror spree that killed seven people was dead after a police raid on the apartment he had holed himself up in for more than 24 hours.
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. Then came the reports that he was dead.There was no immediate confirmation of his death, or any indication as to what might have caused him to die. France24 television reported that three police were injured in the final raid, 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 still alive. He had not contacted negotiators since Wednesday night, raising suspicions that he may have committed suicide.
"We hope that he is still alive," Gueant said, stressing that authorities' priority is to capture him alive. He said the gunman earlier told negotiators that he wanted to "die with weapons in his hands."
Hundreds of heavily armed police, some in body armor, surrounded the five-story building in Toulouse where Merah had been holed up since the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday.
Authorities said the shooter, a French citizen of Algerian descent, 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 told CBS News on Wednesday that a north African man of the same name was jailed in 2008 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.
Authorities were "counting on his great fatigue and weakening," said Didier Martinez of the SGP police union, adding the siege could go on for hours. Street lights were also cut, making Merah more visible to officers with night vision goggles in case of an assault.
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.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term, vowed to defend France.
"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for the two paratroopers killed and another injured last week in Montauban, near Toulouse.