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French spymaster: Gunman didn't plan school attack

France 2 via Reuters

France's prime minister has rejected accusations that intelligence lapses allowed Mohamed Merah, a man with a violent criminal record who had been spotted twice in Afghanistan, to become the first al-Qaida-inspired killer to strike on its soil.

PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy's spy chief says a gunman who killed three young children and a rabbi at a Jewish school only attacked the school after missing his original target -- a French soldier.

Ange Mancini, Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, said on French TV that Mohamed Merah had wanted to kill a soldier he had targeted Monday in Toulouse, but arrived too late and instead besieged a nearby Jewish school.

Mancini told France-24 TV on Friday that "it wasn't the school that he wanted to attack," calling the school shooting "opportunistic."

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Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, was killed Thursday in a shootout after police raided the Toulouse apartment
where he had been holed up for 32 hours in a standoff with authorities.

Also on Friday, the country's s prime minister rejected accusations that intelligence lapses allowed Merah, a man with a violent criminal record who had been spotted twice in Afghanistan, to become the first al-Qaida-inspired killer to strike on its soil.

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Merah shot dead three Jewish children and four adults in three separate attacks despite having been under surveillance by the DCRI domestic intelligence agency, which questioned him as recently as November.

Hardened by battling Islamic militants from its former North African colony of Algeria, the French security services have long been regarded as among the most effective in Europe, having prevented militant attacks on French soil for the last 15 years.

Opposition politicians, including far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, suggested that negligence or errors had permitted Merah to carry out three deadly shootings within 10 days before he was identified, located and killed.

But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the police and intelligence agencies had done an exemplary job.

"Resolving a criminal case of this importance in 10 days, I believe that's practically unprecedented in the history of our country," Fillon told RTL radio.

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Merah amassed a cache of at least eight guns under the noses of French intelligence, including several Colt .45 pistols of the kind he used in the shootings, but also at least one Uzi submachine gun, a Sten gun and a pump action shotgun.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had appeared to acknowledge on Thursday that there were grounds to question possible security flaws, saying: "We need to bring some clarity to this."

"Since the DCRI was following Mohamed Merah for a year, how come they took so long to locate him?" Socialist party security spokesman Francois Rebsamen asked on the JDD.fr website.

Merah's elder brother Abdelkader, 29, who is now under police questioning, was also on a security watch list after being linked with the smuggling of Jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007, government officials said.

The left-leaning daily Liberation asked in an editorial whether the intelligence services had not "failed miserably."

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"How could they have so underestimated the potential danger of an individual they already knew?"

In Washington, two U.S. officials said Merah was on a U.S. government "no fly" list, barring him from boarding any U.S.-bound aircraft. The officials said that his name had been on the list for some time.

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The officials said the entry included sufficient biometric detail to make clear the man on the blacklist was the same person involved in the Toulouse shootings. He was put on the list because U.S. officials deemed him a potential threat to aviation, one of the officials said.

Rebsamen said that after the shooting of two paratroopers in Montauban, near Toulouse, on March 15, Merah's name was on top of a DCRI list of 20 people to be particularly closely watched in the southwestern Mid-Pyrenees region. Yet the agency appeared to have lost his trace.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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