After a massive manhunt and a two-day standoff at an apartment building in Toulouse, French authorities say a man who claimed to be a member of al-Qaida and to have killed seven people in recent weeks is now dead himself.
According to French Interior Minister Claude Guéant, in the hour before 7 a.m. ET there was a dramatic conclusion to the saga that had gripped France and gotten the attention of people around the world.
After special police units stormed the apartment of French-Algerian Mohammed Merah, Guéant said, the suspect fired at the officers and then jumped from a window — still blasting away. "He was found dead on the ground," Guéant told reporters.
Merah, said to be 23 or 24 years old, was the lone suspect in the murders of three French soldiers earlier this month and an attack on a Jewish school on Monday that left three children and a rabbi dead.
French officials said that in negotiations with Merah during the standoff he claimed to be a member of al-Qaida and to have carried out the murders in revenge for the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French military's presence in Afghanistan.
As you'll see below, we posted earlier on the signs that the standoff was drawing to a close, and on the breaking news of the suspect's death.
Here, courtesy of France 24, is audio from Guéant's announcement (with English translation).
Update at 10 a.m. ET. He Was Shot In The Head, Official Says:
"A French prosecutor says that a gunman who claimed responsibility for a radical Islam-inspired killing spree was shot in the head by police," The Associated Press reports. It hasn't been reported yet whether it was the gunshot, the fall from a height or a combination of the two that killed him.
Update at 8:45 a.m. ET. Sarkozy Says Those Who Often Visit Terrorism-Related Websites Will Be Prosecuted:
The Associated Press writes that "French President Nicolas Sarkozy says an investigation is under way to see if the suspect in a series of radical Islam-inspired killings had any accomplices. Sarkozy also said that anyone who regularly visits 'websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law.' He promised a crackdown on anyone who goes abroad 'for the purposes of indoctrination in terrorist ideology.' "
Update at 8:25 a.m. ET. From The Associated Press:
"The death of Mohamed Merah, 23, ended a more than 32-hour standoff with an elite police squad trying to capture him alive. Merah was wanted in the deaths of seven people, three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi, all killed over 10 days. Another student and another paratrooper were wounded in his attacks."
Update at 7:05 a.m. ET. Suspect Is Dead, Interior Minister Says:
French Interior Minister Claude Guéant just announced on national television that the man suspected in the recent killings of seven people in and around Toulouse, France, is dead. Guéant said that after police stormed the suspect's apartment, he jumped from a window — still firing back at authorities, the minister said.
We'll have more in a moment.
Our original post, from 6:50 a.m. ET:
It's too soon to say it's all over, but there are signs that the long standoff with a man suspected of killing at least seven people in and around Toulouse, France, may be near an end.
France 24 reports "elite forces have entered [the] Toulouse suspect's apartment, police sources say."
The BBC says "gunfire was heard near the apartment block in the city of Toulouse, with reports police had met resistance but that the suspect was now dead." That report of the suspect being dead is not confirmed.
According to The Associated Press, gunfire and explosions have been heard. The standoff is now in its second day.
The man thought to be inside the apartment, French-Algerian Mohammed Merah, is wanted for the killings of three soldiers earlier this month, and three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi this week.
As NPR's Corey Flintoff wrote for us Wednesday, Merah has reportedly claimed to be a member of al-Qaida and has told authorities he carried out the killings to avenge the deatlsh of Palestinian children and to protest the French military's presence in Afghanistan.
We will keep an eye on what's happening and update this post as the story develops.