A 32-hour standoff between French commandos and a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda operative who boasted of gunning down seven people ended fatally Thursday, with the suspect leaping from a window to his death, weapon in hand.
Mohamed Merah, 23, was suspected in the killings of three paratroopers, a rabbi and three Jewish schoolchildren in three separate attacks this month. French officials said he confessed to the slayings as part of a mission "to bring France to its knees," and had holed himself inside a bathroom of his second-storey apartment Thursday before bursting out and firing some 30 rounds at police.
"He was shooting violently. The shots were frequent and severe," Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters in French. "In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped through the window with one weapon in his hand while still shooting. He was found dead on the ground."
'We did everything we could. We would have liked to have arrested him alive and questioned him.' — French prosecutor François Molins
A sniper with the elite French police squad fired a "retaliatory shot" that struck Merah in the head as he jumped and fired his Colt .45, according to Paris prosecutor Francois Molins. The prosecutor added that Merah had been wearing a bulletproof vest.
Molins said Merah appeared to toy with police negotiators — first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then saying he would surrender under the cover of darkness, to only renege on those pledges altogether.
The suspect had told police Wednesday night it would be either him or members of the police that would die in the standoff.
"If it's me, who cares? I'll go to paradise," Molins quoted Merah as saying.
Police had wanted to capture Merah alive, with the hopes they would be able to find out if he had acted alone in the shooting spree, but when the Islamist extremist broke off communications with negotiators late Wednesday, they decided to enter the apartment.
Molotov cocktails found in apartment
"We did everything we could," he said during a news conference aired on Al Jazeera. "We would have liked to have arrested him alive and questioned him."
Three members of the special squad were wounded Thursday, bringing the total of injured French officers throughout the standoff to five.
In Merah's apartment, police found materials for Molotov cocktails, a pot of munitions of different calibres, and three loaders for automatic pistols, Molins said.
Merah had filmed the murders, and claimed to have posted them online. Police have viewed the videos.
The prosecutor said the gunman, in his first killing of a paratrooper March 11, is heard on the video saying "You kill my brothers; I kill you."
Molins said Merah told investigators where to find the bag with the videos of the slayings, caught by a camera that had been strapped to his chest and given to someone else to keep.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said Merah was on the list of known or suspected terrorists who are prohibited from flying to the U.S. The counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said Merah had been on the no-fly list since 2010. The list includes thousands of known or suspected terrorists.
Sarkozy vows crackdown
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said an investigation is underway to determine whether the suspect in a series of radical Islam-inspired killings had any accomplices.
Sarkozy also said that anyone who regularly visits "websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law." He promised a crackdown on anyone who goes abroad "for the purposes of indoctrination in terrorist ideology."
Merah is a French citizen of Algerian descent. His age was originally reported as 24, but it has been determined he's 23. He was tracked down by more than 200 special investigators after the Monday attack on a Jewish school in northern Toulouse.
The prosecutor said two major breaks in the case led them to Merah: his mother's computer, which was used by Merah to respond to an online ad by the soldier who became Merah's first victim.
Authorities also found a Yamaha motorcycle shop where Merah suspiciously sought information about how to deactivate a GPS tracker.
"He wants to show he is exceptional, omnipotent, and this approach can only end up as something tragic," —Person quoted
Merah's mother and a brother were detained a day ago by police. The brother, Abdelkader, had already been linked to Iraqi Islamist networks.
Molins also added that Merah had a lot of money and managed to buy many weapons.
In another development, the SITE Intelligence Group is reporting that a lesser-known jihadist group, Jund al-Khilafah, has claimed responsibility for the three shootings. The group, which has claimed past attacks in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, made the declaration after Merah's death.
The murders of seven innocent people in three separate incidents over the last two weeks are believed to be the first incidents of killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.
Merah planned to kill again, prosecutor says
Authorities said Merah had been to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaeda.
They said he told negotiators he wanted 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," Molins told a news conference Wednesday.
Molins said the suspect had plans to kill another soldier — prompting the police raid at around 3 a.m. Wednesday.
He was also known to police, having been arrested for petty crimes as a teenager, and more recently for a violent robbery, CBC's Margaret Evans reported from London.
"It's thought he became a radical Muslim while he was in prison," she said.
During the standoff, elite police squads set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning — some blew off the apartment's shutters — in what officials described as a tactic aimed to pressure Merah to give up. A new set of detonations, known as flash bangs, resounded at 10:30 a.m. local time.
The volley of gunfire resounded throughout the neighbourhood Thursday morning.
Suspect 'in a process of hate'
Gueant said police "went in by the door, taking off the door first. They also came in by the windows." He said police used special video equipment to search the second-floor apartment but didn't find him until the instruments surveyed the bathroom.
Even before Merah's death, the lawyer who had defended him for years on a series of criminal charges predicted a dramatic and sombre end to the standoff.
"He wants to show he is exceptional, omnipotent, and this approach can only end up as something tragic," Christian Etelin said on news channel i-Tele on Thursday.
He said Merah had tried to join the military but was rejected. He said Merah was also disillusioned after a string of convictions for petty crimes and after efforts to reduce his sentences through work programs failed.
"He felt rejected by the periods of detention he was handed out, and for his wish to defend France in the army. Now, he is in a process of hate," Etelin said.