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French government denies Toulouse suspect arrest

France's interior minister has denied reports that police have arrested a man in connection with a recent series of shootings in Toulouse.

BFM TV had reported that the suspect, Mohammed Merah (23) a Frenchman of Algerian origin, had been detained inside a block of flats that had been under siege all morning.

Merah is suspected of the killing of three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers.

Interior minister Claude Gueant said Merah was talking to a police negotiator and says he will surrender in the afternoon. The minister says police want to take him alive.

The suspect is 24 years old, French and says "he belongs to al Qaida," Mr Gueant said. He added the suspect "wants to take revenge for Palestinian children" killed in the Middle East, and is angry at the French military for its operations abroad.

The man was known to authorities for having spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The shooting suspect is "talking a lot, claiming his jihadist convictions" and calling himself a "mujahedeen," Mr Gueant said.

"He said he wants to avenge the deaths of Palestinians," the minister said, adding that he is "less explicit" about killing French paratroopers.

Police have been conducting a massive manhunt across a swath of southern France after seven people were killed in three attacks over the past several days, and France's terror alert level was raised to its highest level ever in the region.

A French paratrooper was killed in Toulouse on March 11, two other paratroopers were killed and one injured last Thursday in the nearby town of Montauban, and three children and a rabbi were killed in a shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday.

The suspect in the attacks drove a powerful scooter, and the same weapon, a Colt .45, was used in all three shootings. Another less powerful weapon also was used in the attack on the Jewish school.

Police arrived overnight to raid the house in Toulouse, near the site of the first killing.

"When they arrived ... the wanted individual shot at the door," Mr Gueant said.

One officer was injured in the knee and another officer was lightly injured in ensuing exchanges of fire.

Officers brought the suspect's mother to the scene and tried to get her to help negotiate, but she refused, saying "she had little influence on him," Mr Gueant said.

For years the main terrorist threat that French authorities have been concerned about has been al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which grew from an extremist group in the former French colony of Algeria.

French officials have been worried that the group may try to conduct an action in France ahead of presidential elections in April and May.

So far it has never succeeded in reaching across the Mediterranean Sea to strike in Europe.

While the Toulouse raid was under way, the bodies of the four victims of the school shooting arrived in Israel for burial. The three children and a rabbi will be buried in a Jerusalem cemetery later Wednesday.

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