A gunman, suspected of killing three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in the name of al-Qaeda, said on Wednesday he would hand himself over to police after an hours-long siege in which he wounded three officers.
About 300 police, some in bullet-proof body armor, cordoned off an area surrounding an apartment in a Toulouse neighborhood in southwestern France, where the 24-year-old Muslim man was holed up. Shots were heard in the early hours of the morning, and police said three officers had been slightly wounded.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman was a French citizen of Algerian origin who had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan and had shot dead the four in revenge for French military involvement abroad. He is also suspected by authorities of killing three soldiers of North African origin last week.
“He said ... he will turn himself in this afternoon,” Gueant told BFM television, adding the man had thrown a Colt 45 pistol from the house in exchange for a “communication device.”
He still has an Uzi machine gun, a Kalashnikov assault rifle and other weapons, the minister said, according to Reuters.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigning for re-election in a presidential poll in five weeks, has blamed racism for Monday’s school attack. His handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how the French people vote.
Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen decried the attacks as the result of France’s mistaken policy in Afghanistan and said France should wage war against “these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children.”
Links to al-Qaeda
Interior Minister Gueant said earlier the gunman wanted revenge “for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention.”
“He claims to be a mujahideen and to belong to al-Qaeda,” he told journalists in Toulouse.
Gueant did not say how they had tracked the man down, but that police were talking to his brother at a separate location in connection with the killings.
France’s Europe 1 radio said he had been picked up by Pakistani intelligence services in Afghanistan’s Kandahar and his details had been sent to the French security services. It gave no date.
A police source had threatened an assault on the apartment block if the standoff just a few kilometers from the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school where Monday’s shootings took place lasted for some time.
Sarkozy had been informed of the standoff early in the morning, officials said.
Immigrants and Islam have been major themes of the campaign as Sarkozy tried to win over the voters of Le Pen, who called for a war on fundamentalism.
“The risk of fundamentalism has been underestimated in our country. Certain political and religious groups are developing in the face of a certain laxness,” she told the i-Tele news channel, questioning the decision to deploy in Afghanistan.
“We must now wage this war against these fundamentalist political and religious group that are killing our children, that are killing our Christian children, our Christian young men, young Muslim men and Jewish children.”
France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election; Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande has said he will pull them out by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.
Jean Marc, a 56-year-old restaurant owner in the city who declined to give his last name, said he believed the crisis would benefit the far right or Sarkozy in the election.
“The Socialists don’t talk about this stuff and it shows they don’t know what they are doing,” he said. “They (the police) need to get this guy.”
Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins said on Tuesday that the gunman had filmed the killings in the school. He first wounded Rabbi Jonathan Sandler as he entered the school and then cornered eight-year-old Myriam Monsonego and shot her in the head, he said. He then returned outside and shot Sandler and his two children, who had rushed to his side, at point blank range.
Authorities believe that the gunman in the school shooting was the same person responsible for killing three soldiers of North African origin in two shootings last week in Toulouse and the nearby town of Montauban.
The same Colt 45 handgun was used in all three attacks and in each case the gunman arrived on a Yamaha scooter with his face hidden by a motorcycle helmet.
Israel buries the Toulouse victims
Meanwhile, the funerals for the three French-Israeli victims got under way in Jerusalem, an AFP correspondent said.
At least 2,000 mourners could be seen at the sprawling Givat Shaul cemetery on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, standing around the four bodies.
The bodies of 30-year-old Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego arrived in Israel earlier on Wednesday, two days after they were gunned down.
Many of the crowd were weeping quietly as a rabbi read from the Book of Psalms, as the distraught parents were supported by friends and family, an AFP correspondent said.
Among those attending the funeral were French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Yishai and parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin.
Four coffins containing the bodies of the teacher, a French national, and the three children, all of whom had French-Israeli nationality, were flown from Toulouse to Paris on Tuesday before flying to Israel, where the two bereaved families had asked that their loved ones to be buried.