France is facing calls for an inquiry into possible intelligence failures after a series of murders by a gunman in the south of the country.
Mohammed Merah – who claimed to have al-Qaeda training – was killed by a police sniper in Toulouse on Thursday.
It has now emerged that he had been under surveillance for months and had been on the US no-fly list.
Merah, 23, carried out three separate attacks, killing four people at a Jewish school and three soldiers.
He had said he was acting to “avenge Palestinian children” and protest against French military interventions overseas.
‘Lone wolf’?
On Thursday French officials admitted that Merah had been followed by intelligence agencies for years.
They said that as recently as November 2011 he was questioned by France’s DCRI domestic intelligence agency to explain his trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
French Police had Thursday fired shots and set off explosives roughly every hour outside an apartment block in southern France to try to force out the 24-year-old gunman suspected of killing seven people in the name of al-Qaida.
More than 24 hours after 300 police first surrounded the five-storey building in a suburb of Toulouse, Mohamed Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, was refusing to give himself up.
Instead, Merah boasted to police negotiators that he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out plans for more killings.
He has told negotiators he killed three soldiers last week and a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan. He filmed the school shootings using a camera strapped to him.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose handling of the crisis may influence voters less than five weeks from an election in which he is running for a second term, promised on Wednesday that justice would be done and asked people not to take vengeance.
France’s elite Raid commando unit detonated three explosions just before midnight on Wednesday, flattening the main door of the building and blowing a hole in the wall, after it became clear Merah did not mean to keep a promise to turn himself in.
They continued to fire shots roughly every hour, and stepped up the pace at dawn with two loud explosions that sounded like grenades. Analysts said police were attempting to exhaust the gunman and make him easier to capture unharmed.
“These were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender,” said interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.
A dozen bystanders mingled with reporters kept by police at a distance of around 600 metres from the building.
Merah, who authorities say has a weapons cache in the apartment including an Uzi and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, wounded two officers on Wednesday.
“What we want is to capture him alive, so that we can bring him to justice, know his motivations and hopefully find out who were his accomplices, if there were any,” the defence minister, Gérard Longuet, told TF1 television.
Merah, who told police negotiators he had accepted a mission from al-Qaida after receiving training in the border area of Pakistan, had identified another soldier and two police officers he wanted to kill, investigators said on Wednesday.
“He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees,” Paris prosecutor François Molins, who is part of the anti-terrorist unit leading the investigation, told a news conference .
The gunman negotiated with police all day on Wednesday, promising to give himself up and saying he did not want to die.
“He’s explained that he’s not suicidal, he doesn’t have the soul of a martyr and he prefers to kill but to stay alive himself,” the prosecutor said.
At a ceremony in an army barracks in Montauban, near Toulouse, Sarkozy paid tribute to the three soldiers of North African origin killed last week.
“This man wanted to bring the Republic to its knees. The Republic did not give in, the Republic did not back down,” he said, standing before three coffins draped in the French flag.
Vowing justice, he said the men had been killed in a “terrorist execution”.
Merah had staked out the first soldier he killed after replying to an advert about a scooter, investigators said.
Sarkozy’s handling of the crisis could be a decisive factor in determining how people vote in the two-round presidential election on 22 April and 6 May.
Early on Thursday, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Sarkozy would narrowly beat Socialist challenger François Hollande in the first-round vote.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, a rival candidate, has called on France to wage war on Islamic fundamentalism. Jewish and Muslim community leaders have called for calm, pointing out the gunman was a lone extremist.
Immigration and Islam have been major campaign themes after Sarkozy tried to win over supporters of Le Pen, who accused the government of underestimating the threat from fundamentalism.
France’s military presence in Afghanistan has divided the two main candidates in the election. Hollande has said he will pull out troops by the end of this year while Sarkozy aims for the end of 2013.
The raid came just three days after the school attack and followed an unprecedented manhunt by French security forces.
Merah’s lawyer, Christian Etelin, who has defended him in several minor crimes, said his client had a tendency towards violence that had worsened after a stay in prison and trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“There was his religious engagement, an increasing hatred against the values of a democratic society and a desire to impose what he believes is truth,” Etelin told France 2 television.

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