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France school shooter planned another attack, says Sarkozy

French President Sarkozy told Jewish leaders that the Toulouse gunman planned another attack Wednesday. The Toulouse gunman is still surrounded by police. 

By Johanna DecorseAssociated Press / March 21, 2012

French police secure an area Wednesday, March 21, where they exchanged fire and were negotiating with a gunman who is suspected of killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in Toulouse, south France.

(AP Photo/Bruno Martin)

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Toulouse, France

A French Jewish leader says the gunman suspected in seven recent killings and claiming allegiance to Al Qaeda was about to strike again.

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Marc Sztulman of Jewish group CRIF said President Nicolas Sarkozy told community leaders the suspect was ready to attack again Wednesday morning, before French police decided to surround his apartment building in the southwestern city of Toulouse.

Twelve hours into the standoff between the gunman and police, Sarkozy said the suspect is still "surrounded by the forces of order."

Sarkozy was speaking at a ceremony in nearby Montauban honoring three paratroopers killed in two attacks over the last 10 days. He described the killings as a "terrorist execution."

IN PICTURES: French school shooting

 French police are still preparing to storm an apartment building in Toulouse on Wednesday to arrest the gunman, a top police official said.

Three officers were wounded in a predawn raid while trying to arrest the 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who authorities said had spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Hundreds of riot police have surrounded the building in the southwestern city.

Cedric Delage, regional secretary for a police union, said the suspect has promised to turn himself into police shortly. Delage said if that doesn't happen, police will force their way in.

The gunman is suspected of killing three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers in recent days.

The suspect has told police he belonged to Al Qaeda and wanted to take revenge for Palestinian children killed in the Middle East, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said, adding the man was also angry about French military intervention abroad.

An Interior Ministry official identified the suspect as Mohamed or Mohammad Merah, who has been under surveillance for years for having "fundamentalist" views. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

After hours of trying to persuade him to surrender, police evacuated the five-story building, escorting residents out using the roof and fire truck ladders.

The raid was part of France's biggest manhunt since a wave of terrorist attacks in the 1990s by Algerian extremists. The chase began after France's worst-ever school shooting Monday and two previous attacks on paratroopers, killings that have horrified the country and frozen the campaigning for the French presidential election starting next month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said a "monster" was on the loose in France and vowed to track him down. Sarkozy has played up nationalist themes in his bid for a second term.

French authorities said the suspect threw a Colt .45 handgun used in each of the three attacks out a window in exchange for a device to talk to authorities, but has more weapons like an AK-47 assault rifle. Gueant said other weapons had been found in the suspect's car.

The suspect "said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians," Gueant told reporters, adding that he is "less explicit" about why he killed French paratroopers. The paratroopers were of Muslim and French Caribbean origin, but the interior minister said the suspect told them the ethnic origin has nothing to do with his actions.

"He's after the army," Gueant said.

There was some confusion over the suspect's background, because a person of the same name was arrested in southern Afghanistan five years ago and escaped from his prison cell in Kandahar province in a 2008 mass jailbreak, according to Kandahar provincial spokesman Ahmad Jawed Faisal. However, Faisal says their records also show that Merah was an Afghan citizen from Kandahar province.

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