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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The French newspaper Le Monde is calling it the interminable siege. Since early this morning, French police have been in a standoff with a man suspected of murdering seven people in the southern city of Toulouse, seven people in three different shootings. They were all killed in broad daylight and at point blank range. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley is following the ongoing drama from Paris.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The French woke this morning to news that the country's most wanted man had been tracked down and was holed up in an apartment building surrounded by an elite squad of terror police. The man wasn't a right-wing extremist, as the media had speculated, but a Frenchman of Algerian origin with ties to al-Qaida. The pre-dawn raid erupted into a firefight, wounding three officers. Police then began talking to 24-year-old Mohamed Merah in an effort to get him to come out peacefully and alive.
A terrified neighbor of Merah spoke to French radio during the raid before the building could be evacuated.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: There's gun-firing and we don't know what's going on, she said. We're just upstairs from him, trapped here, terrified for the last three hours. Please, someone has got to help us get out of here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: All day long as the standoff continued, France began to learn about its mass murderer. Cable news channels tried to construct his profile. Merah was born in Toulouse of Algerian parents. His mother, who has been arrested along with Merah's brother and his girlfriend, told police that she could not help talk him out because he didn't listen to her. Merah had a record of petty crime, purse snatchings and driving without a license. His lawyer, Christian Etelin, has known him since 2005.
CHRISTIAN ETELIN: (Through translator) He was an easygoing person, even courteous. He wasn't a rigid fanatic. His older sister and his mother were frustrated by his recidivist delinquent behavior. But he didn't do drugs and he wasn't violent.
BEARDSLEY: French interior minister Claude Gueant, speaking through a translator, says that all changed with trips to Afghanistan.
CLAUDE GUEANT: This person has indeed a history of violence. He became increasingly radical as he spent time with a Salafist group. I wish to remain cautious, but it seems his ideology grew following two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
BEARDSLEY: Merah was on a French watch list of those who had traveled to Afghanistan. Police found him through his computer when he answered an ad to buy the motorcycle of one of the soldiers he killed. On Monday morning, a gunman on a motorcycle pulled up in front of this Jewish school in Toulouse, shooting a father and his two preschool children before putting a bullet through the temple of an 8-year-old girl.
When it was discovered that the same gun and scooter were used in the shootings of the three paratroopers of North African origin the week before, President Nicolas Sarkozy put southern France on a high terror alert. The manhunt was on. Sarkozy suspended his presidential campaign, but he's getting plenty of coverage as he leads the nation through its ordeal.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS SARKOZY: (Through translator) In the face of such a crime, France can only be strong if we remain united. We owe this to the victims assassinated in cold blood. We owe it to our country. We will not let terrorism fracture this nation.
BEARDSLEY: Sarkozy and five other presidential candidates attended a national funeral service for the three paratroopers at a military base outside of Toulouse today. Earlier, French television broadcast live coverage from Jerusalem of the funeral for the victims of the school shooting. French foreign minister Alain Juppe attended.
ALAIN JUPPE: (Speaking foreign language)
BEARDSLEY: The leaders of the French Muslim and Jewish communities spoke together today, calling for unity. Paris' head rabbi suggested that Merah may have committed his crimes to pit French Jews and Muslims against each other. Arm in arm with the chief imam, he said they were there to show their friendship and fraternity. The head French prosecutor says Merah has admitted to all the crimes. He says he was avenging the deaths of Palestinian children and was angry about French involvement in Afghanistan.
Merah also told police he had two more killing plans in the works. One was to be carried out this morning. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.