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French authorities: Explosions turn up pressure on suspect in Jewish school slayings

French police are demanding the surrender of Mohamed Merah, the suspect who allegedly shot seven people and then bragged of bringing France to its knees. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

Updated at 11:01 p.m. ET: TOULOUSE, France – Three large explosions were heard late Wednesday at the siege of a suspect wanted in the killings of three Jewish children, a rabbi and three soldiers, but there were reports that the blasts were an attempt to pressure the man to surrender and did not signal the start of an assault. 

Toulouse Deputy Mayor Jean-Pierre Havrin had said that negotiations with the suspect, identified as 24-year-old Mohammed Merah, had ended and an assault had begun.


But there were conflicting reports that authorities had blown open the apartment doors and windows in an attempt to pressure Merah to give up.

"They were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender,'' Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told Reuters. "There is no assault.''

Orange flashes lit up the night sky near the suspect's building as the first explosions were heard.

More than an hour later, several loud bangs were heard at the site.

Police reinforcements had arrived at the scene at around 10 p.m. and authorities switched off street lights in the street, signaling that action would begin soon.

The suspect wounded three police officers when the standoff began at 3 a.m. Wednesday.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant said earlier that Merah had told police that he would surrender after dark. Gueant said Merah appeared to have acted alone in the killings -- but also claimed to authorities that he met al-Qaida "chiefs" while traveling in Pakistan last year.

Merah, under siege by hundreds of police officers, claimed to be a member of al-Qaida and that he had shot dead the four out of "revenge for Palestinian children." He is also suspected by authorities of having killed three French soldiers of North African origin last week.

French prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, told police he had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan.

Molins also said Merah had planned to kill another soldier and two police officials imminently, and that his brother had been implicated in a network sending fighters to Iraq.

Police sources earlier told Reuters that another man had been arrested earlier Wednesday at a separate location in connection with the case.

Several hours after the initial raid, which took at about 3 a.m. local time Wednesday (10 p.m. ET Tuesday), the alleged gunman threw a pistol out the window in exchange for a "communication device." However, he was believed to have other weapons including an AK-47 assault rifle.

The suspect said he would surrender in the late evening "to be more discreet," although he had earlier promised to give himself up during the afternoon.

"He claims to be a mujahedeen and to belong to al-Qaida," Gueant told journalists in Toulouse. "He wanted revenge for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention."

Remy De La Mauvinere / AP

Police and firefighters stand near the building where a suspect in the shootings at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, was believed to be holed-up.

 

France 24 reported that Merah had been tracked by French intelligence services for several years.

An earlier Reuters report that Merah escaped in 2008 from Kandahar prison, where he had been serving a three-year sentence, was retracted by the news agency. Kandahar governor's office said that account was "baseless", citing judicial records. "Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah," the governor's spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace.

'God is testing us'
As the siege continued, the Haaretz newspaper reported that thousands of people had gathered at the Har HaMenuchotcemetery in Jerusalem Wednesday for a joint funeral service for the victims, Rabbi Jonathan Sandler and his two sons, Gabriel, aged six, and Arieh, three, and Miriam Monsonego, aged eight.

"Our hearts are with the Jews of France and with the Ozar Hatorah institutions that took such a hard and painful blow. The pain is unimaginable, God is testing us," Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said in his eulogy, according to the paper.

PhotoBlog: Funeral for school shooting victims held in Israel

President Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigning for re-election in a presidential poll in five weeks time, has blamed racism for Monday's school attack. His handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how the French people vote. France has troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO forces.

"Terrorism will not divide France," Sarkozy said. "We should not give way to discrimination or vengeance after shootings."

Gueant did not say how authorities had tracked Merah down.

However, a Le Figaro correspondent at the site of raid reported that police received key tip from a local motorcycle shop in Toulouse a few days ago, according to NBC News. A salesperson said a man came into the shop to ask how to neutralize the GPS system on his TMX scooter. The salesperson thought this was suspicious and reported incident to police, giving a description of the suspect.

Gueant said that when police arrived to raid the house "the wanted individual shot at the door." NBC News reported the officers were members of an elite team known as RAID.

All French shooting victims shot in the head at close range, prosecutor says

One officer was injured in the knee and another officer lightly injured in ensuing exchanges of gunfire, Gueant said. A third officer was later reported to have been hurt.

Heavily armed police in bullet-proof vests and helmets cordoned off the area where the raid was taking place, in a suburb only about 2 miles from the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school where Monday's shootings took place. NBC News reported that 300 officers were participating in the operation.

Suspect's mother called in
Merah's mother, elder brother and two sisters were detained by police on Tuesday and negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade him to turn himself in to the authorities.

"His mother said she did not wish to speak to him because she did not believe she could convince him and he would be deaf to her appeals," Gueant said.

The suspect inside the house said that he trained in the Pakistan and Afghanistan and is affiliated with Forca lesa, an Islamic group dismantled by the French government. The group, which recruits young French to join the jihad, is considered to be dangerous.

On Tuesday, hundreds of police officers had spread out across southern France in the hunt for the gunman suspected in three deadly attacks.

Authorities suspect the school killer was also behind two recent attacks in the same area on French paratroopers that left three soldiers dead and one seriously wounded. The victims were of North African and French Caribbean backgrounds.

A tense standoff unfolds in Toulouse, France, between police and the man suspected in a string of deadly shootings, including one at a Jewish school that killed three children and a rabbi.

Sarkozy described the killer as a "monster."

"There are beings who have no respect for life. When you grab a little girl to put a bullet in her head, without leaving her any chance, you are a monster. An anti-Semitic monster, but first of all a monster," he said.

Monday's incident was the deadliest school shooting in the country and the bloodiest attack on Jewish targets in decades. Schools across the country held a moment of silence Tuesday to honor the victims, who were heading to Israel for burial.

Gueant described the suspect as "someone very cold, very determined, very much a master of his movements, and by consequence, very cruel."

NBC News, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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