TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - A 23-year-old gunman who said al Qaeda inspired him to kill seven people in France died in a hail of bullets on Thursday as he scrambled out of a ground-floor window during a gun-battle with elite police commandos.
Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, died from a gunshot wound to his head at the end of a 30-hour standoff with police at his apartment in southern France and after confessing to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi.
"A killer wanted, according to his own words, to bring France to its knees by sowing hatred and terror. He has been neutralised," President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for re-election next month, told a campaign rally in the eastern city of Strasbourg.
Merah fired frantically at police from a Colt 45 pistol as he climbed through his apartment window onto a verandah and toppled to the ground some 5 feet (1.5 metres) below, according to prosecutors and police.
Two police commandos were injured in the operation - a dramatic climax to a siege in a suburb of the city of Toulouse which riveted the world after the killings shook France a month before a presidential election.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant told reporters at the scene that Merah emerged from the bathroom firing repeatedly when police pushed a video probe into the room. "In the end, Mohamed Merah jumped from the window with his gun in his hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground."
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said Merah had taken refuge in his bathroom, wearing a bullet-proof vest under his traditional black djellaba robe, as police blasted his flat through the night with flash grenades.
Opposition leaders, including far right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, demanded to know how Merah was able to amass a sizeable weapons cache and embark on his killing spree despite being under surveillance and having been questioned as recently as November by the DCRI domestic intelligence service following a trip to Afghanistan.
"Since the DCRI was following Mohamed Merah for a year, how come they took so long to locate him?" Socialist party security spokesman Francois Rebsamen, saying Merah was top of a DCRI regional watchlist.
In Washington, two U.S. officials said Merah was on a U.S. government "no fly" list, barring him from boarding any U.S.-bound aircraft. The officials said that his name had been on the list for some time.
Neighbours watched from the sidelines as the drama exploded around a man friends have spoken of as an amateur soccer player who visited night clubs and was not outwardly religious or involved with radical politics.
Police investigators were working to establish whether Merah had worked alone or with accomplices, Molins said, adding that Merah had filmed his three shooting attacks with a camera hung from his body and had indicated that he had posted clips online.
The most disturbing image of the attacks was of him grabbing a young girl at a Jewish school on Monday by the hair and shooting her in the head. He escaped on a powerful scooter.
The killings have raised questions about whether there were intelligence failures, what the attacks mean for social cohesion and race relations in France and how the aftermath will affect President Nicolas Sarkozy's slim chances of re-election.
Sarkozy called Merah's killings terrorist attacks and announced a crackdown on people following extremist websites.
"From now on, any person who habitually consults websites that advocate terrorism or that call for hate and violence will be punished," he said. "France will not tolerate ideological indoctrination on its soil."
Lawyer Christian Etelin, who represented Merah in cases including driving without a licence, said he seemed to struggle with a sense of alienation after being twice rejected by the French army. He said an 18-month imprisonment for petty crime convictions hardened his outlook but he had not lived a life one might expect of an Islamic fundamentalist.
"He liked cars, money, girls," Etelin told reporters. "He did not go to the mosque, was not proselytising and led an existence which was fully modern in appearance, with friends and plenty of outings. He always gave the outward impression, at least, of someone who wanted to live a modern life."
RAID commandos had been in a standoff since the early hours of Wednesday with Merah, periodically firing shots or deploying small explosives until mid-morning on Thursday to try and tire out the gunman so he could be captured. Surrounded by some 300 police, Merah had been silent and motionless for 12 hours when the commandos opted to go inside.
He had initially fired through his front door when police swooped on his flat on Wednesday morning but later negotiated, promising to give himself up and saying he did not want to die. By late Wednesday evening, he changed tack again, telling negotiators he wanted to die "like a Mujahideen", weapon in hand, and would not go to prison, Molins said.
"If it's me (who dies), too bad, I will go to paradise. If it's you, too bad for you," Molins quoted Merah as saying.
IF YOU KILL MY BROTHERS
The interior ministry said there was no evidence Merah belonged formally to any group or was planning radical murders. Merah has a police record for several minor offences, some involving violence.
A Spanish interior ministry spokesman said police there were investigating whether Merah had ever met activists in Spain.
Merah had told negotiators he was trained by al Qaeda in Pakistan and killed three soldiers last week and four people at a Jewish school on Monday to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan.
In his video recording of his shooting of the soldiers, Merah cried: "If you kill my brothers, I kill you", Molins said.
Merah staked out his first soldier victim after replying to an advert for a scooter, investigators said on Wednesday and had identified another soldier and two policemen he wanted to kill.
His use of his mother's computer to lure his first victim, a French soldier of North African heritage like himself, gave police a vital clue, but not in time to prevent the other killings, even though he mentioned to a mechanic that he had resprayed his scooter before the final attack on Monday.
Sarkozy's handling of the crisis could well impact an election race where for months he has lagged behind Socialist challenger Francois Hollande in opinion polls.
Early on Thursday, the first opinion poll since the school shooting showed Sarkozy two points ahead of Hollande in the first-round vote on April 22, although Hollande still led by eight points for a May 6 runoff.
A second poll showed Sarkozy had trimmed Hollande's lead in the second round and that voters considered him more credible on security and immigration issues.
Three years of economic gloom, and a personal style many see as brash and impulsive, have made Sarkozy highly unpopular in France, but his proven strong hand in a crisis gives him an edge over a rival who has no ministerial experience.
Sarkozy said an inquiry would be launched into whether French prisons were being used to propagate extremism.
A militant Islamist group called Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) claimed responsibility for Merah's killings, according to a statement posted on an internet forum used by Islamists. It named the assailant as Yousef al-Ferensi and said his attack "shook the foundations of the Zio-Crusaderdom".
Merah, who had a weapons cache in his flat that included an Uzi and Kalashnikov assault rifle, boasted to police negotiators that he had brought France to its knees, and that his only regret was not having been able to carry out more killings.
(Additional reporting by Jean Decotte in Toulouse and Daniel Flynn, Geert de Clercq, Leigh Thomas and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Janet McBride)