French PM Fillon defends Merah 'intelligence failures'

This video footage shows the inside of Mohamed Merah's flat

French PM Francois Fillon has said there were no grounds for arresting militant Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah before he shot dead seven people.

Security services have been criticised since it emerged that Merah had been under surveillance for months.

Mr Fillon said there was no single element to suggest a threat.

But presidential candidate Francois Hollande said there were flaws in the surveillance of Merah, who died in a police assault on Thursday in Toulouse.

But speaking on French radio, Mr Fillon said the DCRI, France's domestic intelligence service, "had done their job perfectly".

"They did enough surveillance to see that there was no evidence to suggest he was a dangerous man," he told RTL on Friday.

Image on France 2 TV said to show Mohammed Merah Mohamed Merah had claimed to have al-Qaeda training

"We do not have the right in this country to permanently monitor someone when they have committed no crime, without the decision of a judge. We live in a state of law.

Mounting criticism

"Belonging to a Salafist organisation is not an offence in and of itself," Mr Fillon added.

"We cannot mix up religious fundamentalism with terrorism, even if we know there are elements that unite them."

Hundreds of people gathered at a rally in Toulouse on Friday in a show of unity, and to pay homage to the victims of the shootings.

Merah, 23, carried out three separate attacks, killing three soldiers and four people at a Jewish school.

Analysis

Mohamed Merah's violent brand of ideology is revealed in the gruesome video he recorded of the three attacks which began on 11 March.

As he shoots one of three soldiers who were murdered, he apparently says: "You kill my brothers, I kill you."

"Brothers" is presumably a reference to the Taliban in Afghanistan, where French troops make up part of the Nato forces in the country.

Like many militants inspired by the radical ideology of al-Qaeda and other groups, Merah seems to have believed he would be rewarded if he was killed.

It was known he had travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had been placed on the US no-fly list banning him from boarding any aircraft to America.

Mr Hollande said there had been a "flaws" in the surveillance of Merah, and after the killings there were "questions which must be asked".

"Our laws have been strengthened against this threat, and it can be said that this arsenal is flawed," the Socialist candidate added.

But he said he would wait for the results of the official inquiry into the affair before making any further criticisms.

Official campaigning in next month's presidential election is resuming after being put on hold following the shooting at the Jewish school on Monday.

Opinion polls this week suggest little change in the fortunes of the main candidates, with Mr Sarkozy and Mr Hollande roughly equal in first-round voting intentions, while Mr Hollande is still far ahead in the second.

One surprise, however, is the indication that radical left-winger Jean-Luc Melenchon has caught up on, or even overtaken, the far right's Marine Le Pen.

Three polls taken since Monday, two of which were completed on Thursday, show Mr Melenchon on 14, 11 and 13% compared to 13, 17 and 13.5% for Ms Le Pen.

The same polls show support of 28, 28 and 30% for Mr Sarkozy, and 29.5, 27.5 and 28% for Mr Hollande.

Crime scene investigators

Hunt for French killer

France has seen an unprecedented security clampdown after a lone gunman killed seven people, including three children, in three separate attacks in the south-west of the country.

Police tracked down the main suspect after investigating the movements of a stolen scooter used by the killer to make his escape following shootings in Toulouse and nearby Montauban.

Yamaha T-MAX scooter

6 March: Scooter stolen

A Yamaha T-Max scooter that proves key to tracking down Mohammad Merah, the main suspect in the targeted killings, is stolen.

Police say Merah or an associate later contacted a garage to find out how to switch off the stolen bike's GPS tracker device.

After the second attack, Merah had the black bike resprayed white. Suspicious garage staff contacted the police.

Imad Ibn-Ziaten

11 March: Gunman strikes

French soldier Imad Ibn-Ziaten is lured to a meeting in Toulouse after advertising his motorbike for sale.

The suspect apparently uses his brother's email address to arrange a meeting with Sgt Ibn-Ziaten. The paratrooper, who is not in uniform, is shot dead at close range.

Police say the weapons used to kill the soldier were the same as those employed in the subsequent attacks in Montauban and Toulouse.

Abel Chennouf and Mohamed Legouade

15 March: Double killing

Four days later, the gunman strikes again using the same weapons and riding the stolen scooter.

The assassin targets paratroopers in the nearby garrison town of Montauban. Abel Chennouf (left) and Mohamed Legouade are killed as they wait by a cash machine. A third soldier is critically injured.

Police say the killer is a meticulous operator. The clip for the gun used in all three attacks has no fingerprints or DNA on it.

Police outside Jewish school

19 March: Jewish children killed

Another four days pass before the killer targets a Jewish school in Toulouse.

Arriving on a white scooter, the killer guns down Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two sons Gabriel (aged four) and Arieh (five), and seven-year-old Myriam Monsonego at close range.

Reports suggest the killer wore a video camera, apparently to record his actions. A crash helmet and visor hid his identity.

Apartment block

21 March: Suspect cornered

An email address used by the suspected killer leads the police to this apartment block in Toulouse.

A raid on the apartment on the first floor is launched in the early hours of the morning. Police officers who knock on the door of an apartment are fired on - but not seriously hurt.

The heavily armed gunman gives up one of his guns in exchange for a mobile phone to speak to police. Residents in the apartment block are evacuated from the area.

Apartment block

22 March: Suspect dead

The siege ends in dramatic fashion with a gun battle between Merah and special police units who stormed the apartment after a 32-hour standoff.

Merah was hiding in his bathroom when the police entered the apartment. When a video probe was sent into the bathroom he emerged firing several guns at once.

In the end, Merah jumped from a window with a gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground.

Crackdown pledge

Merah, of Algerian descent, was shot by a police sniper after he opened fire on police commandos storming his flat after a 32-hour siege on Thursday morning.

Mohammed Merah

  • French citizen of Algerian extraction, aged 23
  • Has criminal record in France for non-terrorist crimes
  • Has described himself as an al-Qaeda member and has spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan

The marksman killed Merah as he tried to jump out of the bathroom window, prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.

The prosecutor also confirmed Merah had filmed all three attacks.

Merah's brother Abdelkader was arrested on Wednesday. Police sources have told French media that he did not know about his brother's criminal activity.

Earlier, President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a televised address that everything had been done to try to bring Merah to justice, but it was decided that no more lives could be put at risk.

He also vowed a new crackdown on those who visited "hate or terrorism" web sites or travelled abroad to be indoctrinated in terrorism.

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