PARIS -- A gunman claiming links to Al Qaeda was holding staff members of a bank hostage in southern France on Wednesday, not far from the former home of drive-by killer Mohamed Merah, who in March shot and killed seven people, including three Jewish schoolchildren.
Police surrounding the CIC bank in a suburb of Toulouse said they had heard a shot fired inside Wednesday morning. The gunman is holding four people, including the bank manager, and has demanded to speak to officers from RAID, a special-forces police brigade in Paris.
It was members of the elite SWAT-like squad who negotiated with Merah during a 32-hour siege before storming his flat and fatally shooting him. Merah had admitted to killing a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school as well as three French paratroopers in shooting attacks that shocked France. Merah, 23, had also claimed links with Al Qaeda.
One local woman who runs a restaurant next to the CIC bank told Paris Match magazine that she heard a gunshot Wednesday. Police have asked residents to remain in their homes, fearing the gunman could open fire if they attempt to evacuate the area. A bomb-disposal team is also at the scene because the gunman says he has explosives.
"We have no idea if his claims to be linked to Al Qaeda are serious or fantasy," a police union spokesman told Reuters.
Another police officer told French journalists that the hostage-taking appeared to be the result of a bank robbery that had gone wrong.
-- Kim Willsher
Photo: The apartment where drive-by shooter Mohamed Merah lived in Toulouse, France, in a photo taken in March. Credit: Pascal Pavani / AFP/Getty Images