Michel Valet

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

An unidentified man comforts schoolchildren as they leave their Jewish private school after a gunman opened fire killing several people in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday, March 19, 2012. A father and his two sons were among four people who died Monday when a gunman opened fire in front of a Jewish school, the Toulouse prosecutor said Monday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

TOULOUSE, France — A motorbike assailant opened fire with two handguns Monday in front of a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse, killing a rabbi, his two young sons and a girl. One witness described him as a man chasing small children and “looking to kill.”

One of the guns he used also had been fired in two other deadly motorbike attacks in the area that targeted paratroopers of North African and French Caribbean origin, officials said. French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested one person was responsible for all the killings.

A massive manhunt was under way and the terrorism alert level was raised to its highest level ever across a swath of southern France surrounding Toulouse. Hundreds of officers increased security at schools, synagogues and mosques around the country, and Sarkozy said 14 riot police units “will secure the region as long as this criminal” hasn’t been caught.

France has seen a low drumroll of anti-Semitic incidents but no attack so deadly targeting Jews since the early 1980s. This country is particularly sensitive toward its Jewish community because of its World War II past of abetting Nazi occupiers in deporting Jewish citizens.

French prosecutors were studying possible terrorist links but the motive for all three attacks was unclear. Still, issues about religious minorities and race have emerged prominently in France’s presidential campaign, in which the conservative Sarkozy has taken his traditional hard line against immigration.

News that the gun was used in attacks last week around Toulouse fueled suspicions that a serial killer was targeting not only Jews, but French minorities. A police official said the same .45-caliber handgun was used in two previous attacks that killed three paratroopers and seriously injured another. In all three cases, the attacker came on a motorcycle, apparently alone, and then sped away.

Monday’s attack was as quick as it was terrifying. A 30-year-old rabbi, Jonathan Sandler, and two of his sons were killed just before classes started at the Ozar Hatorah school, a junior high and high school in a quiet neighborhood, Toulouse Prosecutor Michel Valet said. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the sons were 4- and 5-years-old.

Another child, the 7-year-old daughter of the school principal, was also killed, school officials said. Valet said a 17-year-old boy was also seriously wounded.

“He shot at everything he had in front of him, children and adults,” Valet said. “The children were chased inside the school.”Nicole Yardeni, a local Jewish official who saw security video of the attack from the single camera near the school gate, described the shooter as “determined, athletic and well-toned.” She said he wore a helmet with the visor down.

“You see a man park his motorcycle, start to shoot, enter the school grounds and chase children to catch one and shoot a bullet into her head,” Yardeni said. “It’s unbearable to watch and you can’t watch anymore after that. He was looking to kill.”

The bodies were brought in hearses to the school Monday night for an evening vigil. All of the dead had joint Israeli-French citizenship and will be buried in Israel, the Israel Foreign Ministry said.In Monday’s attack, which took place about 8 a.m., the killer also used a .35-caliber gun, the police official said. At least 15 shots were fired at the school, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

A police union official in Paris said the shooter knew weapons well to handle a .45-caliber handgun plus a second gun.

“The shooter is someone used to holding arms,” Nicolas Comte of the SGP FO police union. “He knows what he’s doing, like an ex-military guy.”

Sarkozy rushed to Toulouse to visit the school with Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.

“This act was odious, it cannot remain unpunished,” Sarkozy said.

“We do not know the motivations of this criminal. Of course, by attacking children and a teacher who were Jewish, the anti-Semitic motivation appears obvious. Regarding our soldiers, we can imagine that racism and murderous madness are in this case linked,” he said Monday night after returning to Paris.

Sarkozy’s challengers for the presidential vote in April and May also hurried to the scene.

The slain rabbi taught at the school and reportedly arrived from Jerusalem last September with his wife and children.

France has the largest Jewish community in Western Europe, estimated at about 500,000, as well as its largest Muslim population, about 5 million.

Toulouse, a southwestern city north of the Pyrenees mountains, has about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews in its overall population of 440,000, said Jean-Paul Amoyelle, the president of the Ozar Hatorah school network in France. He said its Jewish community is well integrated into the city.

The school targeted Monday, behind a high white wall, was cordoned off by police, who then escorted other children out as forensics police combed the scene. Six bullet holes circled an aluminum fence that surrounds the school.

One officer held a distraught girl, her face in her hands. A mother and son wearing a yarmulke walked away from the site, their faces visibly pained.

“Everything leads one to believe that these were racist and anti-Semitic acts,” Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen said on BFM-TV.

“This is a Jewish school, well identified as such, and it is normal to think that anti-Semitism is at cause,” CRIF said in a statement.

Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told The Associated Press the suspect made his getaway on a dark-colored scooter — just as the assailant or assailants did in the two deadly shootings last week.

On March 10, a gunman on a motorbike shot and killed a paratrooper in Toulouse. Last Thursday, a gunman on a motorbike opened fire on three uniformed paratroopers at a bank machine in Montauban, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Toulouse, killing two and critically wounding the other.

The mother of one student, Corinne Tordjeman, had just finished dropping off her 14-year-old son Alexandre when the attacker came. Alexandre described hearing the shots and parents shouting and how he saw blood all over the ground. Her younger daughter was supposed to go to a birthday party this weekend with the girl who was killed.

The killer “knew that killing Jewish children would make a lot of noise, but tomorrow it could be a Christian, a Muslim, or anyone else,” she said.

One man who lives near the school had just spoken with the rabbi.

“I said “Bonjour” to him like normal,” said the 29-year-old, asking to be identified only by his first name, Baroukh.

“Then he went out into the school entrance. I heard the shots and I turned around and saw him on the ground. He looked dead. But I didn’t have much time to see who did it because I panicked and started running away.”

Paris police said Monday they are also investigating threats against two synagogues in Paris from last week. A police official said there was no apparent link between those threats and Monday’s shooting.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “whether it was a terror attack or a hate crime, the loss of life is unacceptable.”The U.S. government said it joined France in condemning this unprovoked and outrageous act of violence in the strongest possible terms.”

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims, and we stand with a community in grief,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Special prayers were offered Monday in Paris and a minute of silence in all French schools is to be held today.

Printed on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 as: Four slain in French Jewish school