French shooting suspect escaped Afghan jail

Radical Path: belongs to Salafi group,trained in Pak; ‘killings revenge for Palestinian kids’ deaths,French ops abroad’

Written by Agencies | Toulouse | Published: March 22, 2012 12:40:12 am

Mohamed Merah,the Frenchman suspected of killing four Jews and three Muslim soldiers in southwestern France,escaped in a mass jailbreak from Afghanistan where he was sentenced to three years in prison for planting bombs.

Merah,24,who was holed up in a suburban Toulouse apartment on Wednesday,besieged by police commandos from the elite RAID unit,claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda and said he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and French military intervention abroad ,French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.

After 13 hours of negotiations,one French official said hundreds of police were ready to storm the building in the southwestern city of Toulouse to end the standoff.

The suspect,a French citizen of Algerian origin,had been under surveillance by France’s domestic intelligence service for several years after being identified in Afghanistan. But he led a normal life of soccer and night clubbing,according to friends and neighbours.

His radicalisation took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan. During one of those trips,Merah was arrested in Kandahar and sentenced to three years in prison for planting bombs in the province but escaped in a mass Taliban jailbreak in 2008,the director of Kandahar prison told Reuters.

Ghulam Faruq said Merah was detained by Afghan security services on December 19,2007. Afghan intelligence officials passed on his identity to their French counterparts,a security source said.

However,confusion remained over whether the man who was part of the jailbreak was the same one at the centre of Wednesday’s raid. The New York Times reported that a man by the same name had escaped the Afghan prison and that he was a citizen of Afghanistan,not France. “All I can say is that we have this guy Mohammed Merah in our records,but he’s an Afghan citizen,” said Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq,the police chief of Kandahar Province. “He’s certainly not French.”

The daily Le Monde said Merah had trained with Pakistani Taliban fighters in a border tribal zone before being sent into Afghanistan to fight against NATO forces supporting the Kabul government.

The French Interior Minister said the Salafist group to which Merah belonged had never given any indication of turning to criminal activity. Merah’s mother,elder brother and two sisters were detained by police late Tuesday. Prosecutor Francois Molins said one of Mehran’s brother Abdelkader had been implicated in a 2007 network that sent militants to Iraq.

Molins told a news conference,that the suspect had “no regrets,except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees.”

Merah’s profile is typical of hundreds of second- or third-generation French immigrants from North Africa who have travelled to Afghanistan or Pakistan over the last two decades attracted by Islamist groups,security officials say.

A group of four 24-year-old friends of Merah with similar ethnic backgrounds said he had never talked to them about religion and they had no idea he had been to Afghanistan. One friend,Kamal,said he had known Merah at school and they had done soccer training together. “He never spoke about Islam but he did pray. But we all pray five times a day.”

Another friend of Moroccan origin,who gave the pseudonym Danny Dem,said Merah had tried to enlist in the French army but had been rejected. He said he had seen Merah in a city centre nightclub just last week. “Merah did not drink but I don’t think he is any more religious than I am. I think he has just lost the plot,” Danny Dem said.

The suspect promised several times to surrender,but didn’t. The raid gained urgency,a prosecutor said,after it was learnt that the man was planning to kill another soldier imminently.

French authorities said the suspect threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window,but had more weapons. The police said a key to tracking the suspect was the motorcycle he used in the attacks,a dark gray one stolen on March 6. The frame was white,witnesses said. One of the suspect’s brothers went to a motorcycle sales outfit to ask how to modify the GPS tracker,raising suspicions. The vendor then contacted police.

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