Interior Ministry

Police officers walk next to the building in Toulouse, France, Wednesday March 21, 2012 where a suspect in the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school had been spotted.

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-Qaida-linked terror spree that killed seven people.

As the standoff dragged into a second day, hundreds of heavily armed police cordoned off the five-story building in Toulouse where the 24-year-old suspect, Mohamed Merah, had been holed up.

An Interior Ministry official said the suspect had gone back on a previous decision to turn himself in — and that police blew up the shutters outside the apartment window to pressure him to surrender.

The Toulouse prosecutor, Michel Valet, told The Associated Press: “I cannot confirm that the assault has started. It’s not as simple as that. We are waiting.”

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-Qaida.

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. Two police were wounded, triggering on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted into the night.

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.

Wednesday’s siege 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 beginning March 11, killings that have horrified the country and frozen campaigning for the French presidential election next month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term, vowed to defend France.

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

The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in, 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-Qaida 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.”

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.

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 Merah 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 had more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in his car.

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

Delage said a key to tracking Merah was the powerful Yamaha motorcycle he reportedly 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 his 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.

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 earlier in the day.

At the funeral ceremony, 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.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, meanwhile, denounced the deadly shooting attack at the Jewish school 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.”

Before he was killed last year, bin Laden stressed the importance of focusing on the Palestinian cause. In what is believed to be a draft letter to al-Qaida’s top lieutenant, the al-Qaida leader wrote about the need for the terror group’s affiliates to tie their operations to broad concern for Palestine instead of local grievances, according to declassified documents obtained in last year’s bin Laden raid that were reviewed by the Washington Post.

Printed on Thursday, March 22, 2012 as: French riot police force gunman to surrender

Afghan security forces arrive at the scene of an anti-U.S. demonstration at a NATO military base in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Demonstrators hurled grenades at a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan, and a gun battle left two Afghans dead and seven NATO troops injured Sunday in the escalating crisis over the burning of Muslim holy books at an American airfield.

More than 30 people have been killed, including four U.S. troops, in six days of unrest. Still, the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan said the violence would not change Washington’s course.

“Tensions are running very high here, and I think we need to let things calm down, return to a more normal atmosphere, and then get on with business,” Ambassador Ryan Crocker told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“This is not the time to decide that we’re done here,” he said. “We have got to redouble our efforts. We’ve got to create a situation in which al-Qaida is not coming back.”

The attack on the base came a day after two U.S. military advisers — a lieutenant colonel and a major — were found dead after being shot in the head in their office at the Interior Ministry in the heart of the capital. The building is one of the city’s most heavily guarded buildings, and the slayings raised doubts about safety as coalition troops continue their withdrawal.

The incident prompted NATO, Britain and France to recall hundreds of international advisers from all Afghan ministries in the capital. The advisers are key to helping improve governance and preparing security forces to take on more responsibility.

A manhunt was under way for the main suspect in the shooting — an Afghan man who worked as a driver for an office on the same floor as the advisers who were killed, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi said. He did not provide further details about the suspect or his possible motive.

The Taliban claimed that the shooter was one of their sympathizers and that an accomplice had helped him get into the compound to kill the Americans in retaliation for the Quran burnings.

Afghanistan’s defense and interior ministers were to visit Washington this week, but they called off the trip to consult with other Afghan officials and religious leaders on how to stop the violence, Pentagon press secretary George Little said. The Afghan officials had planned to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey.The protesters in Kunduz province in the north threw hand grenades to express their anger at the way some Qurans and other Islamic texts were disposed of in a burn pit last week at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul.

President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials have apologized for the burnings, which they said were a mistake. But their apologies have not quelled the anger of Afghans, who say the incident illustrates foreigners’ disrespect for their culture and religion.

Last week, during a protest in Nangarhar province in the east, two other U.S. troops were killed when an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them.

In Sunday’s protest in Kunduz, thousands of protesters tried to enter the district’s largest city. Armed individuals in the crowd fired on police and threw grenades at the U.S. base on the city outskirts, said Amanuddin Quriashi, administrator in Imam Sahib.

Seven NATO troops were wounded by the grenade. One protester was killed by troops firing from the U.S. base, and another was killed by Afghan police, Quriashi said.

A NATO spokesman said an explosion occurred outside the base, but that the grenades did not breach its defenses.

In a televised address to the nation, Afghan President Hamid Karzai renewed his calls for calm. Karzai did not mention the killings at the ministry in his opening remarks but when a reporter asked, he said he was “saddened” by their deaths.

He said the unprecedented recall of advisers was understandable, calling it “a temporary step at a time when the people of Afghanistan are angry over the burning of the holy Quran.”

Members of the international military coalition described the removal of advisers as a temporary security measure, stressing that they did not expect it to affect partnerships with the Afghans.

“We continue to move forward and stand by our Afghan partners in this campaign. We will not let this divide the coalition,” said Lt. Col. Jimmie Cummings, a spokesman for the international force.

Germany has withdrawn troops early from an outpost in northern Afghanistan because of the Quran protests.

In Berlin, Defense Ministry spokesman Stefan Paris said late last week that the German military, which handed over security responsibility for the Taloqan area to Afghan authorities on Feb. 15, originally planned to shut down its base there altogether in late March. But the regional commander decided to pull the remaining 50 German troops back to a large base in Kunduz because of nearby demonstrations.

In this Sept. 24 file photo, Egyptian riot police line up to separate pro-Mubarak supporters and the families of the slain protesters during the trial session of ousted president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptian police launched a nationwide strike on Monday to demand better salaries and a purge of former regime officials from senior security posts.

About 3,000 lower ranking police rallied in front of the Interior Ministry in central Cairo to push their demands, including a 200 percent pay raise. They also called for an end to military trials for lower ranking police.

Police said they would hold an open ended sit-in until their demands were met, as around 12,000 went on strike. Egypt has 350,000 police altogether.

Some of the officers at the protest waved banners reading “Good treatment equals better service.”

Another banner called for “Purging the ministry of the mafia and the remnants of el-Adly,” a reference to former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who is on trial for deadly police attacks on unarmed protesters during the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

In the eight months since Mubarak’s ouster, the discredited police force has been unable and reluctant to fully take back control of the streets since the uprising. Hatred of the police and their brutal tactics were main motivations behind the uprising.

Karim Medhat Ennarah of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told The Associated Press that the Interior Ministry has been more responsive to calls for change since Mubarak’s ouster in February, but there is no political will in the ministry to cooperate and initiate reform.

In March, the Interior Ministry dissolved the contentious State Security Investigations agency, in line with a main demand of the protest movement that led the 18-day uprising to oust Mubarak. Many protest leaders have said that the agency’s former members remain active in protecting the remnants of the old regime and trying to sabotage the transition to democracy.

“If we don’t start the reform process now, we are inevitably driving toward another clash between the state and people,” Ennarah said.

Coinciding with Monday’s strike, former police and rights groups published a proposal to reform the Interior Ministry.
Former police officer Mohamed Mahfouz said one of the main obstacles to reform are top ministry officials who are worried about an internal uprising among lower ranking policemen.

“Officials turn a blind eye to corruption in order to control the possibility of a revolt from within,” he said, referring to bribes as well as the torture and abuse of detainees by the police force.