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As police besiege a killer, France's politicians debate race, religion and security

This undated and unlocated frame grab provided Wednesday, March 21, 2012, by French TV station France 2 shows the suspect in the killing of 3 paratroopers, 3 children and a rabbi in recent days, Mohamed Merah. French police were preparing to storm an apartment building in Toulouse on Wednesday to arrest a holed-up gunman who is suspected in seven killings and claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda, a top police official said.

After a massive police siege converged on the man who boasted that he had committed a string of slayings and "brought France to its knees," French leaders struggled to understand how an apparently well-trained Islamic terrorist had gone unnoticed despite a lengthy arrest record.

As the victims of the killings were buried in Jerusalem and honoured at a formal ceremony at a military base on Wednesday, the country's presidential candidates seized on the suspect's religion and immigrant background to launch an angry political debate over security and citizenship.

Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent, reportedly confessed in a phone call to a TV network, and then during negotiations with the police surrounding his Toulouse apartment. He told a reporter for France 24 that he committed three scooter-borne shootings in which he killed three paratroopers, two of them Muslim, a rabbi, his two young sons and an eight-year-old Jewish girl – and planned more killings – in what he described as a political act of vengeance against France's domestic and international policies.

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The call, reported to police who had already zeroed in on Mr. Merah as their prime suspect, set off an extraordinary and eerie scene in a residential neighbourhood in northern Toulouse, whose elegant pink-stone buildings in the more elite quarters make it known as the Rose City. Police laid siege to Mr. Merah's apartment in the predawn hours on Wednesday and settled into a standoff that lasted through the day and into the night.

Determined to take him alive, more than 200 police surrounded the house, engaged him through his front door and, shortly after midnight Thursday, blasted the doors and windows off the house to intimidate him. Throughout the day and deep into the night, the area around the building remained cordoned off from onlookers, a murky no-go area filled with police vans and populated by hundreds of heavily armed police and special agents wearing black balaklavas over their faces.

Amid a wrenching day of horrific revelations, tense negotiations and moving funeral scenes, the increasingly angry French politics of citizenship and religion reared their head. The fact that Mr. Merah was an apparent radical Islamist and the child of Algerian immigrants was seized upon by far-right politicians almost as soon as the raids were under way, and provoked a sharp debate that is likely to dominate campaigning for the first round of France's presidential election on April 22.

As the siege continued Wednesday, it was revealed that Mr. Merah had been known and monitored by police for years. He had been arrested and convicted at least 15 times as a young offender, and had spent time in prison. At one point he had tried unsuccessfully to join the French military and then, according to the Paris prosecutor, he made two trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. He claimed to have trained in militant camps there and with al-Qaeda , though there was no evidence of any links to organized groups.

Still, Mr. Merah's travels to those hot zones and terror camps raised questions as to why he was merely put on a "watch list," and not arrested. "In France you do not get sent to prison for professing strange or extremist ideas," Interior Minister Claude Guéant told an interviewer. But he said police could not yet rule out that Mr. Merah was part of an organized group. Although surveillance videos showed a sole gunman in each of the attacks, Mr. Guéant said, "we need to figure out if he was acting alone or with a small group or as part of a bigger movement."

The standoff began shortly before sunrise with a flurry of gunfire that injured three police officers, then continued through the day and late into the night as Mr. Merah repeatedly made and then delayed offers to surrender. He threw one pistol out the window, but was believed to have an AK-47 assault rifle and an Uzi machine pistol and possibly other weapons, including explosives.

In between, the world watched two funerals, both loaded with political symbolism. The first, in Jerusalem, was the burial of the three Jewish children and a rabbi killed in execution-style slayings outside a school on Monday morning. Israeli President Shimon Peres said France and Israel were united "in search of peace and an all-out war against terrorism."

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In Montauban, French President Nicolas Sarkozy presided over the military funeral of the three paratroopers killed by the same man last week. During the half-hour ceremony, six of Mr. Sarkozy's challengers in the presidential race were forced to stand silently behind the President as he delivered a stern speech declaring France's resilience against terrorism, and urging the public to regard the victims French, rather than Muslim or Jewish. "It is the French army that the killer targets, it is the French republic," he said. But the republic did not give in. The republic did not surrender."

Mr. Merah's mother, brother and girlfriend were all taken into police custody. Police confirmed that Mr. Merah himself had led them to one rental car loaded with weapons, that they had found explosives in Mr. Merah's brother's car, and that another car was still at large. This led police to fear that his apartment was potentially booby-trapped with bombs.

Police suspected that Mr. Merah was attempting to send files to the Internet by mobile phone and other means. He appeared to have videotaped his atrocities with a chest-mounted camera, and while police said they now have this camera in their hands, they were concerned that he was attempting to send a manifesto or other video.

In a late-night phone conversation with a staff member at the TV news network France 24, a man who appeared to be Mr. Merah explained his motives for murdering mainly Muslim soldiers and Jews. He said he was furious with France for participating in the Afghanistan war and for banning the Islamic head scarf (as well as Christian and Jewish symbols) from public schools, and he sought revenge against Jewish children for the deaths of Palestinian children in during recent Israeli military actions there.

French politics intruded even as the suspect was under siege and the victims eulogized. Marine Le Pen, leader of France's ultra-right-wing National Front, seized the opportunity only hours after the raid had begun, using a TV appearance to denounce Mr. Sarkozy for ignoring what she described as an Islamist threat. "I think the risk of fundamentalists has been underestimated – political and religious groups are speeding and it must be said that our government has done little to counter that," she said. "Now we need to go to war against fundamentalists, political and religious." She also denounced Mr. Sarkozy for having failed to have his intelligence services apprehend the killer before he acted.

She was promptly denounced by other politicians such as Socialist Party leader François Hollande, who accused Ms. Le Pen of using the atrocities as "a source of division or confrontation." By this point, the siege had become the backdrop of a de facto campaign debate.

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Editor's note: an earlier version of this story online and in Wednesday's newspaper incorrectly identified Shimon Peres as Israel's Prime Minister. Mr. Peres is the President.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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