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French slaying suspect had criminal past in Afghanistan, official says

March 21, 2012 |  9:49 am

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

REPORTING FROM PARIS -- As French police remain locked in a standoff with a man wanted in connection with the shooting deaths of seven people, including soldiers and Jewish schoolchildren, new information emerged about the suspected killer.

Police identified the suspect to several news agencies as Mohammed Merah, a French national of Algerian origin who claimed to be a member of a group linked to Al Qaeda.

Merah reportedly had a criminal history in Afghanistan. Five years ago, he was sentenced to three years behind bars for planting bombs in the province of Kandahar but escaped months later in a Taliban prison break, an Afghan prison director told Reuters news service.

[Updated at 10:15 a.m. March 21: However, the Telegraph in London reports that the Afghan government has denied ever detaining a French citizen named Mohammed Merah, casting doubt on the prison director's claims.

French prosecutor Francois Molins said the suspect is believed to have been to Afghanistan twice and had trained in the militant stronghold of Waziristan in Pakistan, the Associated Press reported.

The French government said Merah had been under surveillance by security services, and Christian Etelin, an attorney who represented Merah on charges of driving without a license last month, said his client knew he was being watched since his return from Afghanistan.

Interior Minister Claude Guéant said the suspect claimed he had killed students at a Jewish school Monday to "avenge" the deaths of Palestinian children. He also reportedly confessed to killing three soldiers in drive-by attacks because of French military intervention in Afghanistan.

"His radicalization took place in a Salafist ideological group and seems to have been firmed up by two journeys he made to Afghanistan and Pakistan," Guéant said.

Though authorities believe that Merah is a Muslim fundamentalist, two of the three slain soldiers were Muslims and all three were of North African origin, which had fueled earlier suspicions that the killer was targeting French minorities.

However, Guéant said the suspect told them that the soldiers' ethnicities had nothing to do with his actions, the Associated Press reported.

Etelin described Merah as "by no means rigid or fanatical" and said he could not imagine him committing the shootings.

"He was polite and courteous ... quite sweet actually," the attorney said.

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-- Kim Willsher in Paris and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: French police were in a standoff Wednesday with a suspect in the killings of seven people, including children at a Jewish school and French soldiers. Credit: Associated Press

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