Jailed in Afghanistan, French suspect escaped in mass break-out

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Wed Mar 21, 2012 12:33pm GMT

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007, but escaped months later in a mass prison break organised by Taliban insurgents, a top Afghan prison official said on Wednesday.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in southwestern France.

Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq said, citing prison documents.

Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan's main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

The high-security prison, on Kandahar's southern outskirts, has separate compounds for ordinary criminals and inmates being held for political and insurgency-related offences. Merah was likely in the political section, prison sources said.

He was in Afghanistan at a time when Afghan security officials were pleading for more international help, saying more than 4,000 foreign fighters had flocked to the country to aid the Taliban, most of them from Chechnya, North Africa and Pakistan.

It was not clear where Merah fled to after he escaped from prison and how or when he arrived in France, but many foreign fighters left the conflict-racked country as a surge in NATO reinforcements gained momentum in 2009.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said the gunman had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan as part of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force, mainly patrolling Kapisa, a mountainous province near Kabul. They are to shift their focus in March to training and leave the country at the end of 2013.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there.

"We have no information about him," the Pakistani official said.

(Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Editing by Robeert Birsel)

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