By Lisa Bryant
French authorities are investigating whether a suspect in a string of shootings that killed seven people in southwestern France had any accomplices. The suspected killer, Mohammed Merah, died Thursday after a firefight with French police in the city of Toulouse.
The last minutes of the Toulouse drama took place on the national stage – with live accounts of the firefight between French police and suspect Mohammed Merah. Authorities say the gunman, 23 kept shooting as he threw himself from the window of the apartment where he had been holed up for hours. A Paris prosecutor says police shot him in the head and he was found dead on the ground.
Merah’s death brings closure to more than a week of killings in the Toulouse area – first targeting French paratroopers and then Jewish children and a rabbi. French authorities say the suspect acted methodically, at one point chasing an eight-year-old girl into a school courtyard before shooting her dead. Authorities linked the same weapon to all the shootings carried out by a man on a motorcycle.
In an address to the nation shortly after the firefight, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for healing and unity.
Sarkozy said the French must overcome their indignation and control their anger. He said French Muslims had nothing to do with the crazy motivations of a terrorist, noting the assailant had also shot Muslims.
Trained by al-Qaida
Barricaded in the Toulouse apartment for hours, Merah told police he received training from al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He killed his victims, he said, to retaliate for France’s military involvement in Afghanistan — and to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.
Sarkozy announced penal measures against those receiving terrorist training overseas or consulting Internet sites espousing hatred and terrorism. He called for new scrutiny of French prisons to prevent them from becoming places of extremist indoctrination.
Members of France’s Jewish and Muslim communities are staging a joint march on Sunday in memory of the Toulouse victims.
In a joint interview on France’s RTL radio with France’s chief rabbi, Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the French Muslim Council, said it is important for France not to mix Islam with terrorism. He said he is relieved the drama is over.
The killings have cut to the heart of a presidential campaign in which immigration and Islam have been hotly debated. Sarkozy’s handling of the events have clearly helped him in the polls. A new survey puts him two points ahead of his main Socialist challenger, just a month before presidential elections.