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French police set off explosions in standoff

Updated at 8:23 p.m. ET

(CBS/AP) TOULOUSE, France - Riot police set off explosions outside an apartment building early Thursday in an effort to force the surrender of a gunman who boasted of bringing France "to its knees" with an al Qaeda-linked terror spree that killed seven people.

Hundreds of heavily armed police, some in body armor, cordoned off the five-story building in Toulouse where the 24-year-old suspect, Mohamed Merah, had been holed up since the pre-dawn hours.

As midnight approached, three explosions were heard and orange flashes lit up the night sky near the building.

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.

This undated and unlocated frame grab provided Wednesday, March 21, 2012, by French TV station France 2 shows Mohammad Merah, the suspect in the killing of 3 paratroopers, 3 children and a rabbi in recent days in France. French police were preparing to storm an apartment building in Toulouse on Wednesday to arrest a holed-up gunman who is suspected in seven killings and claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, a top police official said. AP Photo/France 2

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.

The standoff began when a police attempt at around 3 a.m. to detain Merah erupted into a firefight. Three 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.

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 plans to kill another soldier, prompting the police raid.

The gunman's brother and mother were detained early in the day. 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.

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The police raid Wednesday 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, killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for the French presidential election next month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.

"Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community," Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in Montauban, near Toulouse.

Sarkozy met with local Jewish leaders earlier Wednesday and told them the police would only storm the building if there was an immediate threat that he'd blow up himself or the building and authorities are satisfied for now that he is not prepared to do so, reports CBS Radio News correspondent Elaine Cobbe.

The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in Wednesday, then halted negotiations. Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said police were prepared to storm the building if he did not surrender.

After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France beefed up its legal arsenal -- now seen as one of the most effective in Western Europe and a reference for countries including the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sarkozy's office said President Barack Obama called him Wednesday to express condolences to the families of the victims and praise French police for tracking down the suspect. The statement said France and the United States are "more determined than ever to fight terrorist barbarity together."

In recent years, French counterterrorism officials have focused mainly on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African affiliate of Osama Bin Laden's network that has its roots in an insurgent group in Algeria, a former French colony.

Molins said Merah's first trip to Afghanistan ended with him being picked up by Afghan police "who turned him over to the American army who put him on the first plane to France."

"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."

Mohammed Merah has a long record as a juvenile delinquent with 15 convictions, Molins added.

An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Merah had been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" Islamic views.

Christian Etelin, a lawyer who previously represented Merah in France regarding other legal matters, described Merah as "polite and courteous" to French media outlet BFMTV. He said that he "absolutely" did not espouse extremist views in his presence, "but I learned two years ago that he was suddenly radicalized and had gone to Afghanistan."

There was some confusion over the suspect's background. The commander of the prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Col. Ghulam Farouq, tells CBS News they had a prisoner by the name of Mohammad Merah of north African origin who 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.

But it's unclear if the suspected shooter is in fact the Merah who escaped the prison. Kandahar provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal said their records also show that Merah was an Afghan citizen from Kandahar province.

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.

During the standoff, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders. The suspect's apartment was on the ground floor of the postwar building, locals said.

French authorities said the suspect 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 has more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in the suspect's car.

"The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials," Gueant said, explaining authorities want to "take him alive ... It is imperative for us."

On Tuesday night, a man claiming to be the shooter called French network France24 and spoke to an executive producer about his alleged motivations for the attacks. He told the producer he was part of a group allied to al Qaeda, and that the shootings were just the beginning of a series of planned attacks. It has not been confirmed that the man who called France24 was Merah. (Click here to see the France24 producer discuss her phone conversation)

"I asked him 'What would you need for this campaign of terror to stop?' He replied two things: 'Either prison where I would be able to hold my head up high and explain myself or death. Because unlike yourselves I am not scared of death," Ebba Kalondo, the producer, said in an interview that aired on France24.

The man claimed that the attacks were in response to France's ban on Islamic veils in public and France's participation in the Afghanistan war effort," Kalondo said.

"As for the attack on the Jewish schools he was adamant that it was revenge for the killings of what he termed 'my little brothers and sisters in Palestine.'"

The building where the raid is taking place dates from the 1960s. The suspect's apartment is on the ground floor, said Eric Lambert, whose son lives in the building.

Delage said a key to tracking the suspect was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle that he has used in all three attacks -- a dark gray one that had been stolen March 6. The frame was painted white, the color witnesses saw in the school attack.

According to Delage, one of the suspect's brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker, raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police, Delage said.

The shooter has proved to be a meticulous operator. At the site of the second paratrooper killing, police found the clip for the gun used in all three attacks -- but no fingerprints or DNA on it.

The first French paratrooper killed was shot March 11 after posting an announcement online to sell his motorcycle and investigators believe the gunman responded and lured the paratrooper into an isolated place to kill him on March 11.

Those slain at the Jewish school, all of French-Israeli nationality, were buried in Israel on Wednesday as relatives sobbed inconsolably. The bodies of Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 3, and 8-year-old Myriam Monsenego had been flown there in the day.

At the funeral ceremony in Jerusalem, Myriam's eldest brother, Avishai, in his 20s, wailed and called to God to give his parents the strength "to endure the worst trial that can be endured."

In the name of the four remaining Monsenego children, he urged his father and mother to "keep going, keep going, keep going."

Meanwhile, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad denounced the deadly shooting attack and condemned the link to Palestinian children.

"It's time for criminals to stop using the Palestinian cause to justify their terrorist actions," Fayyad said in a statement. "The children of Palestine want nothing but dignified lives for themselves and for all the children."


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