France's chief suspect in an al-Qaida-linked killing spree wants to "die with weapons in his hands," the interior minister said Thursday, as a standoff between the gunman and hundreds of police entered a second day.
Suspicions surfaced that the gunman, holed up in an apartment in the southern city of Toulouse, may have already committed suicide. Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Thursday morning that the suspect had not contacted negotiators since Wednesday night.
Elite police squads set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning — some that blew off the apartment's shutters — in what officials described as a tactic aimed to pressure 24-year-old Frenchman Mohamed Merah to give up.
Two or three gunshots were heard from the area of the apartment building overnight. The interior minister said the source of gunshots was unclear.
Authorities say Merah has boasted about carrying out the shootings of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers in three separate incidents over the last two weeks. They are believed to be the first incidents of killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.
"We hope that he is still alive," Gueant said, stressing that authorities' priority is to capture him alive. He said the gunman earlier told negotiators that he wanted to "die with weapons in his hands."
Gueant said "it's rather strange that he never reacted" to the detonations overnight.
Police were using their advantages — numbers, firepower and psychological pressure — in hopes of wearing down Merah, who has had no water, electricity, gas or most likely sleep since the early hours of Wednesday.
Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah clung to his few remaining assets like a small arsenal and authorities' hopes of taking him alive. He appeared to toy with police negotiators — first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether, officials said.
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," said prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference Wednesday.
French authorities — like others across Europe — have long been concerned about "lone-wolf" attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who find radical beliefs online since they are harder to find and track.
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 at around 3 a.m. Wednesday. After it erupted into a firefight, wounding two police, a standoff ensued with on-and-off negotiations with the suspect that lasted through the night.