TOULOUSE, France - A 23-year-old Frenchman who claimed responsibility for killing four men and three children was shot dead Thursday after security forces stormed the apartment where he had been holed up for more than 30 hours, French officials said.
Government officials said they had hoped he would be captured alive. His killing foiled hopes that he might answer key questions on the shadowy path of homegrown terrorists and what networks might aid them.
Francois Molins, the prosecutor in charge of the investigation, said the man, Mohammed Merah, was struck in the head by a bullet. Merah was found dead on the ground after jumping out a low window, according to Interior Minister Claude Gueant. Merah was still firing a .45-caliber Colt as he went out the window.
Just before noon, officers entered the apartment through a front door and windows that had been blasted out, according to Gueant. They searched each room using video equipment, coming finally to the bathroom, Gueant said. As police began to inspect it with the cameras, Merah emerged from a bathroom “firing with extreme violence,’’ Gueant said.
“At the end, Mohammed Merah jumped out a window with a weapon in his hand, still firing,’’ he said. “He was found dead on the ground.’’
More than 300 rounds were reportedly discharged in the firefight. One officer was lightly wounded, and two others were in shock.
In a televised address shortly after the operation, President Nicolas Sarkozy praised the work of French security forces and said he would seek changes in the law to criminalize travel abroad by French citizens for training or “indoctrination’’ by terror groups. Sarkozy also indicated plans to criminalize the viewing of websites that “applaud terrorism.’’
Merah, with a history of delinquency, disaffection, and identification with Al Qaeda, personified what terrorism specialists describe as a violent, homegrown militant who operates on his own - the profile European terrorism specialists find particularly difficult to identify and combat.
His background appeared to strongly resemble those of three of the four suicide bombers who attacked the London transit system on July 7, 2005, killing themselves and 52 other people. They, too, were descended from immigrants from a former colony - Pakistan, in the British case; Algeria in Merah’s - and thus belonged to large and often disaffected minorities.
All appear to have nurtured jihadist passions in the back streets of provincial cities. And, as with the July bombings and several subsequent terrorism conspiracies in Britain, investigators traced links to Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.
A former garage mechanic, Merah made two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years and said he had been trained by Al Qaeda in South Waziristan. On Thursday, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry categorically denied that assertion.
But a senior commander for the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan said that many French citizens were at that area to train with Al Qaeda. Responding to a message seeking comment, the commander responded: “There have been more than 80 French nationals working in different areas of Waziristan, mainly in North Waziristan’s Mirali and Miranshah. Five of them left from here in January 2012.’’
He added, though, that he had no information about a Mohammed Merah or precise names for any of the men, because they adopt new names while training and then take another when they become operatives.
“Most of them have dual nationalities, and we don’t know to which country they moved from here,’’ he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
As with many Taliban claims, his comments could not be verified.
Merah’s standoff, which mesmerized and terrified France, began shortly after 3 a.m. Wednesday, when Merah barricaded himself in a five-story apartment complex in the quiet neighborhood of Cote Pavee, after police attempted to arrest him. Hundreds of officers surrounded the building, on a rise not far from the center of the city.
In the first six hours of the standoff, the suspect fired several heavy volleys at officers trying to enter his apartment. He tossed a .45-caliber pistol from the window, the same kind used in each of the three attacks he admitted to, and was given some kind of communication device.
He made a series of disclosures, officials said, claiming the killings of three paratroopers last week and an attack on a Jewish school that left a rabbi and three children dead, and saying he had planned more killings to avenge the killings of Palestinian children and to protest French intervention abroad and the banning of the full Islamic veil in France.
Merah had initially indicated to negotiators that he hoped to live, but late Wednesday, after hours of tense quiet, he indicated that “if he was taken, he would kill police officers,’’ Gueant said. On Thursday, the interior minister said Merah had wished “to die with weapons in his hands.’’
A series of explosions and gunshots began before midnight and continued into early Thursday, when French media reported that security forces were attempting to destroy a window at the suspect’s apartment. The idea was to deprive him of sleep and warmth, and add to the pressure on him to surrender.
But at some point, the decision to raid the apartment was made.