France on red alert as manhunt continues for Toulouse killer

Mar 20, 2012
Nigel Horne

Killings raise questions over Sarkozy's decision to make immigration a presidential election issue

THE southwest of France is on the highest state of alert – scarlet - under the nation's Plan Vigipirate, designed to deal with terrorist threats but activated on this occasion to find the unidentified man who killed four Jewish people, three of them children, in Toulouse yesterday.

As schools across France observed a minute's silence at 11am today (above), police continued to be drafted in from other regions to help in one of the biggest manhunts in French history, with authorities convinced the same man was responsible for killing three soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban last week, and fearful that he will try to kill again.

Because all the dead are either Muslim or Jewish, synagogues, mosques and faith schools in Paris and other cities across France were under guard this morning.

Police have established that the same gun and same 500cc Yamaha motorbike were used in all three attacks – the killing of an off-duty soldier in Toulouse on 11 March, the killing of two paratroopers in Montauban on 15 March and the shooting spree outside the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in Toulouse as children arrived for classes yesterday. Unless it is different men sharing the same equipment, it appears that a single man is responsible. President Sarkozy referred to a single man - “ce criminel” - at his press conference in Toulouse yesterday.

He has not been identified yet, though given the nationwide horror at what he did yesterday, it is possible his name will be given up by an acquaintance or family member before long. French police sources said the killer was calm, organised and familiar with guns.

An elderly woman who bumped into a man wearing a motorcycle helmet within minutes of the Montauban incident said she noticed a tattoo or scar under one eye when he pushed back his visor. She also described his cold expression - “a look I will never forget”. A witness at the Jewish school said the gunman might have been wearing a camera device on his chest. The Daily Telegraph says police are combing the internet to see if he might have posted a video.

Because the three dead soldiers were of North African descent, and those who died at the school were all Jewish, there is speculation that he is a far-right extremist. The name of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian who killed 77 in last July's rampage, was mentioned many times as a possible “role model” by the French media yesterday. However, as the BBC correspondent Hugh Schofield points out, this theory depends on the gunman having deliberately killed targeted Muslim soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban. Other commentators say it doesn't explain killing Jewish children.

The shootings have cast a shadow over the presidential election with the first round of voting - on 22 April - only a month away. The fact that the victims are all Muslim or Jewish raises questions about Sarkozy's recent decision to use immigration an an electioneering tool. In a bid to win over National Front supporters, he said there was “too many immigrants” in France and their integration into French culture was failing. It has been suggested that the killer may have felt emboldened as a result. In the meantime, all election campaigning is cancelled until at least Wednesday when Sarkozy is due to attend the soldiers' funerals. The three leading candidates – Sarkozy, Socialist Francois Hollande and the National Front's Marine Le Pen – have condemned the killings.

Those killed yesterday were seven–year-old Myriam Monsonego, daughter of the school principal, 30-year-old Jonathan Sandler, a Rabbi visiting from Israel, and his two sons, Gabriel, 4, and Arieh, 5. Their bodies are being returned to Israel for burial. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "a loathsome murder of Jews, which included small children" and said an anti-Semitic motive could not be ruled out.

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All wanton killings, especially of children, Muslim ones included, should be condemned unreservedly. I had no idea that French soldiers of African and Caribbean descent had been killed a couple weeks ago.But then some murders are more newsworthy than others.