French PM defends handling of Toulouse gunman

Authorities reject allegations that intelligence failings allowed a known extremist to kill seven people.

France condolences

French authorities have rejected charges that intelligence failures allowed a young man to kill seven people.

Francois Fillon, the French prime minister, said on Friday that security officials had known Mohammed Merah, who died in a hail of police bullets, was a radical Islamist who visited Afghanistan, but said there was no reason to suspect he was planning attacks.

The intelligence services “did their job perfectly well. They identified Mohammed Merah when he made his trips”, he told French radio.

“We don’t have the right in a country like ours to permanently monitor without judicial authorisation someone who hasn’t committed an offense… We live in a state of law.

– Francois Fillon, French prime minister

Intelligence agents “watched him long enough to come to the conclusion that there was no element, no indication, that this was a dangerous man who would one day pass from words to acts,” Fillon said.

“We don’t have the right in a country like ours to permanently monitor without judicial authorisation someone who hasn’t committed an offense… We live in a state of law,” he said.

Fillon said President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative government is working on new anti-terrorism legislation that would be drafted within two weeks.

Bernard Squarcini, the head of France’s DCRI domestic intelligence agency, said there was little more that security services could have done to predict or prevent atrocities by Merah, who died after a 32-hour police siege in the
southwestern city of Toulouse.

Mourning continues

Crowds gathered in a central square of Toulouse on Thursday to hold a minute’s silence in tribute to seven people shot dead in a series of attacks by Merah.

Officers from an elite unit moved in on Thursday morning, killing Merah as he tried to shoot his way out of his apartment in the city.

Merah was suspected of killing three French soldiers in two separate attacks last week, and of killing three children and a rabbi outside a Jewish school on Monday.

 Profile: Mohammed Merah
 In Pictures: French standoff

Politicians and local media asked how French intelligence officers had failed to stop the killing spree earlier, given that security officers had been aware of Merah and even been in recent contact with him.

In November, he was questiond by French intelligence about trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011. There are also reports that he had been on a US no-fly list since 2010.

Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger to Sarkozy in upcoming presidential elections next month, referred to reports of possible failings in the surveillance of Merah at a rally late on Thursday.

With the end of the siege, Hollande said, “questions will have to be put”.

‘Rush to judgement’

Even Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, said there needed to be “clarity” on why he wasn’t arrested earlier.

In an interview with Europe 1 radio on Thursday, Juppe said that intelligence officers had recently questioned Merah and said the matter would have to be investigated.

The left-leaning Liberation newspaper asked if political considerations had influenced how police had handled the crisis. But right-leaning Le Figaro said it was right to ask questions, but warned against a rush to judgement.

It denounced the knee-jerk reactions from those it dubbed intellectuals, left-wing politicians and rights activists “who never lose a chance to cry scandal”.

Al Jazeera’s Jacky Rowland, reporting from Toulouse, said: “Apparently, the name of Mohammed Merah crossed the desk of investigating officers after the first two shootings in which the paratroopers were killed.”

“Why, some people are asking, was he not apprehended at that stage instead of being left, after which he carried out the school shootings.”

Francois Molins, a French prosecutor, said: “The investigation will focus on whether Merah had any accomplices.”

The manhunt for Merah had interrupted the hard-fought campaign for France’s April-May presidential vote, but Sarkozy resumed his re-election bid with a rally in Strasbourg on Thursday evening, where he said: “These crimes were not the work of a madman.

“A madman is irresponsible. These crimes were the work of a fanatic and a monster.”

In a televised address, Sarkozy vowed to crack down on extremism, saying he wanted legal action against people who regularly consulted extremist websites or travelled abroad for indoctrination.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies