Shots rang out Wednesday as French police surrounded a self-declared member of the Al-Qaeda network holed up in a house after a series of shooting attacks that shocked the nation.
Police sources told AFP officers investigating three attacks in which a gunman killed three soldiers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi had sealed off an address in the Croix-Daurade district of Toulouse.
Six or seven shots rang out, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
A source close to the inquiry had told AFP earlier the suspect had exchanged words with the RAID team and had declared himself to be a member of Al-Qaeda, the armed Islamist group founded by late Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden.
He is thought to be a 24-year-old man who had previously travelled to the lawless border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan which is known to house al-Qaeda safehouses, one of the officials told AFP.
"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."
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant was at the scene of the operation, which was sealed off by officers in body armour and helmets. Two police were slightly wounded as the raid got underway, a source said.
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 an paratrooper of North African origin arranged to meet someone in Toulouse to sell him a scooter he had advertised online, revealing in the ad his military status.
Imad Ibn Ziaten, a 30-year-old 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 gunned down -- two of them fatally -- in identical fashion in a street in the garrison town of Montauban, 45 kilometres (29 miles) away.
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, opened fire outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse, 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.
On Wednesday, the bodies of the four Jewish victims arrived in Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons Arieh, 5, and Gabriel, 4, and seven-year-old Miriam Monsonego arrived at Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv shortly before daw. They were to be buried later in the day
Source: AFP Global Edition