- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

TOULOUSE, FRANCE In a tense, daylong standoff, French riot police surrounded a building in southwest France on Wednesday, demanding the surrender of a man they suspect of slaying seven victims in an al Qaeda-linked terrorism spree.

Hundreds of police cordoned off the streets around an apartment complex in the city of Toulouse after a pre-dawn raid erupted into a firefight.

Three police were wounded as they tried to arrest a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who is suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers.

Prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspect, Mohamed Merah, was a self-taught radical Salafi who had been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan.

The prosecutor said Mr. Merah was planning to kill another soldier imminently, so police had to launch the 3 a.m. raid.

Mr. Molins also said the suspect’s brother, Abdelkader, had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militant fighters to Iraq. The brother and the suspect’s mother were being detained.

French authorities - like others in Europe - have long been concerned about “lone-wolf” attacks by young, Internet-savvy militants who self-radicalize online. Mr. Molins‘ comments, however, marked the first time a radical Islamic motive has been ascribed to killings in France in years.

The police raid 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.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.

“Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community,” Mr. Sarkozy declared Wednesday on national television before heading to funeral services for two paratroopers killed and another injured in Montauban, near Toulouse.

The suspect repeatedly promised to turn himself in Wednesday, then halted negotiations.

Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said if he did not turn himself in, police were preparing to storm the building.

After bouts of deadly terrorist attacks in France in the 1980s and 1990s, France increased 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, 2001, attacks.

In recent years, French counterterrorism officials have focused mainly on al Qaeda 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.

The suspect has told police he belonged to al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding the suspect was also angry about French military intervention abroad.

“He’s after the army,” Mr. Gueant said.

Mr. Molins said Mr. 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.”

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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