TOULOUSE, FRANCE // French police were preparing to storm an apartment building to arrest a holed-up man suspected of a series of deadly shootings, claiming he had carried out the attacks to avenge Palestinian children.
Three policeman were wounded in a pre-dawn raid in the Cote Pavee residential district of the southern city of Toulouse, while trying to arrest a man identified as Mohamed Merah, 23, a French citizen of Algerian origins, according to French media citing police sources.
Cedric Delage, the regional secretary for a police union, said Mr Merah has promised to turn himself into police shortly. Mr Delage said if that doesn't happen, police will force their way in.
Negotiations have been ongoing today since police, investigating three recent attacks in which a scooter-riding serial killer shot dead seven people in cold blood, including three Jewish children, sealed off the address this morning. Mr Merah's mother, brother and the partner of his brother have also been arrested.
Mr Merah, who declared he was a member of Al Qaeda, had thrown his handgun out a window but has other weapons on him, including an AK-47 machine gun, and has used them in volleys with police surrounding the building in this southwestern city.
“The main concern is to arrest him, and to arrest him in conditions by which we can present him to judicial officials,” Mr Gueant, the French interior minister, said, explaining authorities want to “take him alive ... It is imperative for us.”
In the earlier raid, shots rang out periodically. The area was cordoned off by police, including members of the RAID special weapons squad.
Mr Gueant said Mr Merah had spoken to officers through his door, and had declared himself to be a "mujaheddin" fighting to avenge Palestinian children killed in the conflict with Israel.
The victims of the attacks were three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi and the police raid came on the day that they were to be buried.
The minister confirmed two officers had been lightly wounded in the raid, during which the suspect had shot through a door.
"The suspect's mother was brought to the scene. She was asked to make contact with her son, to reason with him, but she did not want to, saying she had little influence on him," Mr Gueant said.
"This person has made trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the past ... and says he belongs to Al Qaeda and says he wanted to avenge Palestinian children and to attack the French army."
Mr Gueant said the suspect's brother had been detained while checks were carried out, although he confirmed that only one suspect had been at the scenes of the three shooting attacks carried out since March 11.
"Today there are several operations being carried out at the same time in the Toulouse metropolitan area," prosecutor Olivier Christen said.
Neighbours leaving the cordoned area said the suspect was on the first storey of a small building on the usually quiet housing estate. They said the first shots had run out at 3am.
"He was in the DCRI's sights, as were others, after the first two attacks," an official said, referring to France's domestic intelligence service, adding: "Then the criminal investigation police brought in crucial evidence."
Another source close to the inquiry said police were confident they had tracked down the right suspect and added: "He's one of those people who have come back from warzones that always worry the intelligence services."
If the suspect is proved to have been responsible for the killings, it would bring to an end one of the most intense manhunts in French history and help calm tensions after the series of attacks disrupted a presidential election.
The shootings began on March 11, when a paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet a man in Toulouse to sell him a scooter which he had advertised online, revealing in the ad his military status.
Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, a staff sergeant in the 1st Airborne Transportation Regiment, was shot in the head at close range with a .45 calibre pistol, a method that was to become the suspect's signature.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were shot dead - two of them fatally - in the same fashion in a street in the garrison town of Montauban, 45 kilometres (29 miles) away.
The dead - Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, both of the 17t Parachute Engineering Regiment - were French soldiers of North African Arab origin.
Arab soldiers are prized targets for groups like Al Qaeda, which regards Muslims who fight for western armies as traitors.
Then on Monday the shooter, still wearing a motorcycle helmet and riding a scooter, attacked the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, killing a religious studies teacher, his toddler sons and a seven-year-old girl.
Anti-terrorist magistrates said the same gun and make of scooter was used in all three attacks and noted that the three attacks were carried out at precise four-day intervals.