French police have laid siege to an apartment block where a self-declared al-Qaeda militant who claimed a series of deadly attacks on troops and Jewish children was holed up.
Officials said suspect Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who has visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, bragged of being an al-Qaeda member and said he had killed to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.
Gunfire erupted as members of the RAID police special forces team tried to storm an apartment in a residential district of Toulouse in a pre-dawn raid, and two officers were wounded, Interior Minister Claude Gueant said.
After the clash the two sides became embroiled in an armed siege, with police initially talking to the suspect through the door. Nine hours after the stand-off began, officials evacuated neighbours from the five-storey block.
President Nicolas Sarkozy told religious community representatives that the gunman had planned to carry out another attack on Wednesday, a Jewish leader said. A police source said the suspect also planned to kill another soldier.
Sarkozy met with the representatives in a police station near the building where the suspect was negotiating with police. He left the station without making any comments to the media.
Gueant said the suspect was thought to be armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Mini-Uzi 9mm machine pistol and other handguns, but had thrown a .45 pistol used in the seven murders in the previous nine days from a window.
Sarkozy said earlier in a televised address after a meeting with Muslim and Jewish community leaders that "terrorism will not succeed in fracturing our national community".
"I say to the entire nation that we must be united," said the president, who has suspended his re-election campaign to deal with the crisis and to pay his respects to the dead from the recent killings.
Paris Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur urged France not to stigmatise his community, saying "99.9 per cent" of French Muslims were law-abiding citizens and the killings were the work of a tiny "fringe".
Gueant said the suspect had for several years been tracked by France’s DCRI intelligence agency and its agents in Toulouse, but that there was never anything to suggest that he was preparing a criminal act.
Merah spoke to officers through the door of his apartment, and declared himself to be a "mujahideen" or "Islamic warrior", fighting to avenge Palestinian children killed in the conflict with Israel, the minister 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," Gueant had told reporters at the scene.
Merah, who twice tried and failed to join the French army, had previously been arrested on an unspecified charge in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, cradle of the Taliban, a police source said.
The siege came on the day that the Jewish victims of the attacks were being buried in Jerusalem and two of the soldiers were being laid to rest, one in France and one in Morocco.
If the suspect is proved 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 the 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.
A message sent from the suspect’s brother’s IP address was used to set up an appointment to inspect the bike, an appointment at which paratrooper Imad Ibn Ziaten was subsequently killed, a police source said.
Four days later three more paratroopers from another regiment were gunned down, two of them fatally, in the same fashion in a street in the nearby garrison town of Montauban.
The pair - Corporal Abel Chennouf, 25, and Private First Class Mohammed Legouade, 23, - were also 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, again 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.
Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, five, and Gabriel, four, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego were buried on Wednesday in Givat Shaul cemetery on the western outskirts of Jerusalem.
Sarkozy and several rival candidates for his presidency attended a memorial ceremony for the slain soldiers in Montauban, and were to visit the wounded police in Toulouse.