AN ISLAMIST gunman who shot dead seven people, including three children, taunted French police who besieged his apartment yesterday that he was on a "mission" from al-Qa'ida.
Hundreds of police surrounded the apartment of Mohamed Merah (24) in Toulouse, south-western France. He has been holed up since firing a volley from his Kalashnikov at officers from France's elite RAID intervention unit as they attempted to storm the flat.
Claude Gueant, the interior minister, said Merah told police he had "received instructions from al-Qa'ida during a trip to Pakistan."
"They proposed he commit a suicide bomb attack. He refused, but accepted a general mission to commit a terrorist attack in France," he said.
It emerged that Merah was a serial petty criminal, rejected twice from the French army, who had travelled to Afghanistan to be trained as a jihadist.
He had been monitored by French intelligence after being rendered back to France from the war zone. But he went on to carry out three separate attacks in the past two weeks, killing three French paratroopers and a Rabbi, and three children at a Jewish school on Monday.
Francois Molins, France's anti-terrorist prosecutor, said Merah had boasted that he had brought France to its knees. "He expressed no regret apart from not having had enough time to kill more victims."
The siege at 17, Rue de Sergent Vigne, in a quiet district began before dawn. Neighbours were woken to the sound of gun shots as the RAID officers surrounded the five-storey council block.
Merah, the French-born son of an Algerian immigrant family, shouted "I can see you!" and opened fire on officers as they approached the building, lightly wounding two. Police appealed to Merah's mother to intervene, but she said she had no hold over him.
Neighbours in the block of flats had not had time to flee. Watching the event unfolding on their televisions, many phoned relatives outside the police cordon to share their fears. "My son is inside," said a frantic father as he arrived at the scene. "I just spoke to him on the phone, he is terrified. He woke up to sounds of gunfire and some sort of grenade... My son is scared the suspect is going to blow the place up."
After hours of negotiations, the residents were finally evacuated mid-morning, some taken down ladders on the backs of firemen.
Police explored vehicles in the area, investigating some that they feared might be booby-trapped with explosives.
Merah confirmed that he had filmed the atrocities and intended to post the images on the internet "soon".
Merah's older brother, Abdelkader (27) was arrested on suspicion of belonging to the Knights of Pride, an extremist group against the burka ban in France.
Police had launched a massive manhunt for the killer. They finally tracked Merah thanks to a message he had sent from his mother's computer to one of his victims.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared: "Terrorism will not be able to fracture our national community." (© Daily Telegraph, London)