MARSEILLE, FRANCE // A man suspected of murdering three children, a teacher and three soldiers in a series of shootings in southern France was cornered in a Toulouse apartment last night as hundreds of police laid siege outside.
France's interior minister, Claude Guéant, said Mohamed Merah, aged 23 or 24, French of Algerian origin, had been under intelligence surveillance for several years. He said the man had admitted all the attacks and had said he was a member of Al Qaeda.
Two hours before the stand-off began at 3am yesterday, leading to exchanges of fire in which three policemen were slightly hurt, a man describing himself as the killer made an 11-minute call to the France 24 television network.
The caller gave precise details of the deadly attacks, and warned that he had "only just begun".
Ebba Kalondo, an editor who took the call, said the man justified his actions as revenge for the French law banning the face-covering veil in public, French military involvement in Afghanistan and the plight of Palestinians.
"He was not at all agitated," she said. "He was very calm, polite … he said he would go to prison with head held high or die with a smile on his face."
He confirmed he had filmed all the shootings and that videos would appear on the internet. She said he interchanged the use of "I" and "we" but talked of other operations planned in Paris, Marseille and Lyon.
French media said later that Mr Merah had told police he had identified another military victim and planned to murder him yesterday, while prosecutors said he was targeting two police officers.
Mr Guéant, who has been in Toulouse since the most recent attack on a Jewish school in the city on Monday, said Merah was armed with weapons including a Kalashnikov assault rifle. He had tossed a pistol from a window in exchange for a communications device for contact with negotiators.
Traces of explosives were allegedly found in the car of one of Merah's brothers, also under arrest. The minister said Merah's mother, other brother and two sisters were detained "as a precaution".
Police asked the mother to appeal to her son to surrender but she refused, saying she had no influence over him.
Mr Guéant said the man was known to have visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. He came to the notice of French authorities as a possible security threat after he was arrested in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in 2008, later escaping in a Taliban breakout.
The raid on a maisonette in a pleasant, middle-class district of Toulouse took neighbours by surprise.
A decision not to evacuate the four-storey apartment block in advance, to avoid alerting the suspect, frightened residents trapped in their homes until an evacuation several hours later.
The dramatic developments came on the day the four school shooting victims, all holding Franco-Israeli citizen and including children aged 4, 5 and 7, were buried in Jerusalem.
In Montauban, France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and other political leaders attended a ceremony to honour the three murdered soldiers.
Merah has a record of petty crime in France. Mr Guéant said he was among those who came under police scrutiny last week after the first killings of a non-commissioned officer in Toulouse on March 11 and of two paratroopers in Montauban four days later.
All three were of north African origin, one of them a Roman Catholic, Abel Chennouf. A fourth soldier, seriously hurt in the Montauban attack, is black and from the French Caribbean.
Mr Merah was traced by analysis of email exchanges with the first victim, who had advertised the sale of a motorbike online and agreed to meet him. He also approached a garage seeking the deactivation of an antitheft locator on the scooter, itself stolen, that he used in the shootings.
This raised questions as to whether Mr Merah could have been arrested before Monday, averting the slaughter at the school.
But the Jerusalem Post quoted Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, representing France at the funerals, as saying: "It's true there are all sorts of lists of people who may be suspect … because of their ties to terror groups.
"However, the link between this man - who was indeed on the list - and the attacks … was made only on Monday night and could have been made only after the attack."
French Muslim and Palestinian leaders were quick to denounce the suspect's justification for the killings.
The Palestinian Mission in France described as "odious" the killings at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school.
In Ramallah, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, said: "It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life."
And Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, warned against confusing fringe elements carrying out atrocities with the "peaceful, responsible and totally integrated 99 per cent" of Muslims.
Meanwhile, a French army chief said Merah tried twice to become a soldier. The first-time, in 2008, he was rejected by the infantry because of his criminal record. In 2010, he spent a night with the Foreign Legion but left without taking his application further.