- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

TOULOUSE, France (AP) — A gunman who took four people hostage in a bank in this southern French city on Wednesday has been captured and the hostages released, a police official said.

Regional police official Frederic Tamisier said the hostage-taker was lightly injured in the operation to capture him. The hostages were unharmed, he said.

The announcement came soon after a series of gunshots were heard from the area of the bank.

Authorities say the gunman had psychiatric problems in the past and claimed he was acting for religious reasons. French media reports said he claimed allegiance to al-Qaida.

Earlier, Prosecutor Michel Valet said the gunman claimed he was “acting not for money but for his religious convictions.” Mr. Valet did not say what faith the gunman adheres to.

Two police officials earlier said a man with a firearm entered a CIC bank branch in central Toulouse at about 11 a.m. (5 a.m. EDT) and took the bank director and other people hostage. The officials said a single shot was fired early on. An AP journalist at the scene heard another shot fired midafternoon, but the source of the shot was unclear.

The officials could not confirm the report on France’s BFM television that the hostage-taker claimed ties to al Qaeda. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The neighborhood around the bank was cordoned off, and neighboring buildings were evacuated. Officers from a specialized police unit, the GIPN, arrived at the scene.

Tensions have been high in Toulouse since March, when a gunman who police said claimed links to al Qaeda killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in the area. Those were France’s worst terrorist attacks in years and led to a crackdown on suspected Islamic radicals around France.

The bank is in the same neighborhood where Mohamed Merah, the suspected gunman in the March attacks, was shot and killed by police. It is near the police station where authorities were overseeing the operation to surround and negotiate with Merah.

The gunman’s identity was unclear.

Among those evacuated were 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds from a private language school next to the bank. Valerie Ruckly-Gravier, who heads the Happy Momes, or Happy Kids, school said police advised that the security parameters in place could last throughout the day.

“I had to call the parents. … The police accompanied the group to the parents at the end of the street,” Ms. Ruckly-Gravier said by telephone.

The mother of a child evacuated from a neighborhood school said on RTL radio that she had received a text message in the morning saying the CIC bank was being robbed.

The Paris headquarters of cooperative bank CIC is in contact with police in Toulouse, bank spokesman Bruno Brouchiquan said. He would not comment further. The bank describes itself as the second-largest retail bank in France and the leading bank insurance group, with thousands of branches in France and around the world.

The hostage-taker said he wanted the elite RAID national police force to come negotiate with him, police said. The RAID police force led negotiations and a 32-hour standoff with Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, in his Toulouse apartment. Merah was shot in the head in a gunfight at the end of the standoff.

French authorities described Merah as an Islamic radical who had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

French intelligence officials said at the time that they found no operational ties between Merah and al Qaeda, despite his claim.

His brother is in custody after being handed preliminary charges of complicity to plotting the killings at the Jewish school in Toulouse and of paratroopers in Toulouse and nearby Montauban.

Elaine Ganley, Greg Keller and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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