France: Muslim terrorist is expected to surrender shortly

The gunman suspected of killing seven people in the name of Al-Qaeda, including three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school, is expected to give himself up to police on March 21 in the French city of Toulouse, thus ending an hours-long siege in the southwestern French city.

Gas service and other utilities have been cut off at the apartment building where the suspect is currently holed up. Minutes before 12 noon local time, residents were evacuated from the building where the gunman is now holding off more than 300 police officers. Anti-terrorism teams are on hand, some members of which have been seen wearing bullet-proof gear and executioner-style black hoods to disguise their faces. President Nicolas Sarkozy has applauded French police for corralling the gunman who, on March 19 committed the most recent of his series of murders.

The alleged murderer has been identified as Mohamed Murah, a 24-year-old Muslim man of Algerian origin. A French citizen, he is believed to have been recently in Pakistan and Afghanistan, ostensibly for training. The gunman claims to be armed with a Kalashnikov automatic weapon, as well as an Israeli-made UZI automatic.

President Sarkozy, who is running his re-election campaign, is seeking calm amidst calls for further crackdown on terrorism and extremist groups in France, which has one of the greatest concentrations of Muslims in Europe. He responded to calls by Marine Le Pen, a rival presidential candidate of a nationalist party, who said France should wage war on Islamic fundamentalism, saying "I have brought the Jewish and Muslim communities together to show that terrorism will not manage to break our nation's feeling of community." Sarkozy also said after meeting community leaders, "We must stand together. We must not cede to discrimination or vengeance." Elections are expected within five weeks.

The victims of the Ozar Hatorah school of Toulouse have been buried. Parliament speaker Reuben Rivlin said in his eulogy at the hill-top cemetery that the attack was done by "wild animals with hatred in their hearts." Mohammed Moussaoui, President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), insisted that France's Muslims are "offended" that the alleged murders of Montauban and Toulouse were done in the name of Islam. Christian religious leaders have deplored the killings. A memorial service was held at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris by a Catholic archbishop on the evening of March 19, while on March 20 the entire French nation observed a moment of silence in memory of the victims of the school killing.

Immigrants and Islamism have been controversial topics in the current presidential campaign as Sarkozy has tried to wheedle support away from Le Pen. The firebrand Le Pen, the daughter of a famous French nationalist, has called for a war on fundamentalism. Said outspoken Le Pen, "The risk of fundamentalism has been underestimated in our country.  Certain political and religious groups are developing in the face of a certain laxness," she told television news, even while questioning Sarkozy’s decision to deploy troops to Afghanistan. "We must now wage this war against these fundamentalist political and religious groups that are killing our children, that are killing our Christian children, our Christian young men, young Muslim men and Jewish children."

Mohamed Merah is believed to be the shooter who waged a one-man war at a Jewish school on March 19 as children arrived for classes. Using 9mm and .45 calibre pistols, he first shot to death a rabbi and his two little sons, and then calmly shot an 8-year-old girl in the head. He is also believed to have shot three off-duty French paratroopers last week, plus an additional attack some 10 days ago. Merah's brother and a female companion are now under arrest. Merah’s brother is also a radical Muslim. Neighbors and friend expressed their shock at the news of Merah's involvement in the shooting, describing him as quiet and interested only in soccer and girls.

Interior Minister Gueant admitted that gunman Merah had been under surveillance for radical beliefs and since the attack on the first of the soldiers last week. Merah was apparently wreaking revenge "for the Palestinian children and he also wanted to attack the French army because of its foreign intervention." Gueant told journalists Merah was a member of an Islamist extremist group in France that heretofore had not plotted violence. "We are certain that the man surrounded by police, and whose surrender is expected, is the one who committed this series of killings," Gueant told BFM television.

Gueant said Merah had thrown a .45 calibre pistol out of a window of the apartment block in Toulouse in exchange for a communication device or mobile phone, but remains armed and dangerous. Gueant gave assurances that "He said ... he will turn himself in this afternoon." Police have already conducted a controlled explosion of the gunman’s automobile on the morning of March 21, discovering it was loaded with weapons.
 

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