Toulouse siege over: Suspect jumps to his death in hail of bullets

Salafist thinking: New challenge for France

TOULOUSE (France) - Self-professed Al-Qaeda militant Mohamed Merah died during a police assault on his besieged flat after jumping out the window while still shooting, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
Gueant told journalists that during Thursday's assault on Merah's flat in the southern French city Toulouse, police cleared rooms until only the bathroom was left.
"When a means of investigation (such as a mirror or camera) was introduced into the bathroom, the killer came out from the bathroom shooting very violently. The bursts of gunfire were frequent and hard," Gueant said.
"A RAID (special police) officer who is used to this kind of thing told me that he had never seen such a violent assault.
"RAID officers of course tried to protect themselves, to return fire, and then in the end, Mohamed Merah jumped out of the window with a gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground."
Merah's flat has been besieged for over 30 hours and journalists kept at a distance. His flat is reportedly on the first floor above the ground floor.
Three police were wounded in the assault, one "fairly seriously", police sources said.
A total of around 300 shots were fired.
Three loud explosions near the apartment were heard shortly before police said the officers had moved in, and an ambulance was then seen passing through a security cordon.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant arrived at the scene right before the blasts, a reporter said. France's chief anti-terror prosecutor, Francois Molins, was also on site.
Merah had been holed up since overnight Wednesday after being tracked down by police as the main suspect in a wave of shootings that killed seven people, including three soldiers and three Jewish children, was holed up.
Gueant had earlier said police had lost contact with Merah but that he had told authorities he wanted "to die weapons in hand".
Prosecutors said Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, had fought off several police assaults on the flat on Wednesday and bragged to negotiators of having been trained by Al-Qaeda on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims and even boasted of having brought France to its knees," Molins told reporters on Wednesday.
The drama began in pre-dawn raids on Wednesday, and the French authorities are convinced they have surrounded the right man and that he has no hostages with him.
After two police were shot wounded when they attempted to raid the apartment, authorities evacuated the building, turned off electricity in the neighbourhood and settled in for the siege.
Officials had said Merah was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi submachine pistol and a collection of handguns.
Molins said Merah had claimed responsibility for three shootings over the previous 10 days in which three French paratroopers, three Jewish children and a teacher were killed in cold blood, shocking the nation.
He claimed to be avenging Palestinian deaths and opposing the French military's involvement in Afghanistan and France's ban on full-face veils.
"Mohamed Merah explained that he belonged to Al-Qaeda. He explained he had been trained by Al-Qaeda in the Pakistani-Afghanistan region in Waziristan," Molins told reporters in Toulouse, scene of two of the shootings.
Waziristan is a tribal area of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan which is known as a haven for Islamist insurgents -- including Al-Qaeda militants -- connected to Taliban guerrillas fighting in both countries.
Molins said the suspect had gone to the region twice and on one occasion had been arrested by Afghan police and handed over to US army troops, who put him on a flight back to France.
Gueant said Merah received orders from Al-Qaeda.
"He explained how... he had even been suggested to carry out a suicide mission and refused, but agreed to carry out a general mission to commit an attack in France," Gueant told TF1 television.
Police and prosecutors said they had arrested Merah's mother, brother and his brother's girlfriend as part of the inquiry. Sources said the suspect had been known to the domestic security service for some years.
Gueant has defended law enforcement from criticism for missing danger signs.
"In France you do not get sent to prison for professing strange or extremist ideas," Gueant said.
On Wednesday, the Jewish victims of the attacks were buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down, two of them fatally, in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban.
The pair -- Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, -- were also French soldiers of North African origin.
Then on Monday the shooter, again wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in an April-May vote, and several rival candidates for the presidency attended a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers at their barracks in Montauban.