TOULOUSE, France - After a pre-dawn raid erupted into a firefight, French riot police pressed Wednesday for the surrender of a holed-up gunman who is suspected in seven killings and claiming allegiance to al-Qaida. A prosecutor said the gunman was planning to kill another soldier imminently.
After 13 hours of negotiations, one French official said hundreds of police were ready to storm the building in the southwestern city of Toulouse to end the standoff.
Three police have already been wounded trying to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who is suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers.
Prosecutor Francois Molins said the gunman, Mohamed Merah, had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan. Molins said the gunman’s brother had been implicated in a network that sent militant fighters to Iraq.
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 starting next month.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term
Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said the suspect has promised to turn himself into police shortly. Delage said if that doesn’t happen, police will force their way in.
The suspect has told police he belonged to al-Qaida 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.
“He’s after the army,” Gueant said.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the suspect has been under surveillance for years for having “fundamentalist” views.
After hours of trying to persuade him to surrender, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders.
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 suspect “said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians,” Gueant told reporters, adding that he 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 had nothing to do with his actions.
Police swept in soon after 3 a.m. (0200 GMT; 10 p.m. EDT Tuesday) on the residential neighborhood in Toulouse where the suspect was holed up. At one point, volleys of gunfire were exchanged.
The suspect promised several times to surrender in the afternoon, then stopped talking to negotiators, Gueant said. In the early afternoon, he resumed talking.
“Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to the funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in nearby Montauban.
The series of attacks _ every four days since March 11 _ began with the killing of another paratrooper in Toulouse.
“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.”
A judicial official said the suspect’s mother, brother and a companion of the brother were detained for questioning. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
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.
The schoolchildren killed, 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.”
Elaine Ganley, Thomas Adamson, Jamey Keaten, Ingrid Rousseau, Cecile Brisson and Sylvie Corbet in Paris, David Rising in Berlin and Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem contributed to this report.