Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah, a 24-year-old French national of Algerian origin, had broken off contact with police negotiators shortly before midnight, vowing to shoot any police officers who came near. Earlier, during marathon conversations with police, Merah had freely acknowledged killing the soldiers, rabbi and children in three separate attacks.
Two gunshots were heard inside Merah’s apartment in the early hours of Thursday morning, Gueant said, generating speculation that the young extremist might have committed suicide.
But when heavily armed paramilitary police entered the apartment through the door and several windows about 10:30 a.m., Gueant said, Merah burst out of the bathroom, firing away.
Armed with a Colt .45 pistol, he shot so fast “it sounded like an automatic weapon,” said Francois Molins, the chief Paris prosecutor.
After sweeping the apartment with gunfire, Gueant said, Merah jumped out of an open window “and he was found dead on the ground below.”
Molins, speaking later, said Merah was killed by a bullet that slammed into his head, fired by police as they returned Merah’s gunshots in what Molins described as legitimate self-defense.
His killing brought relief that the tragic episode was over. But the relief was overshadowed by the knowledge that Merah now cannot be brought to a public trial, as ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Molins said Wednesday that Merah told negotiators that he carried out the killings in the southwestern cities of Toulouse and Montauban to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children killed by Israelis; challenge France’s military role in Afghanistan; and protest last year’s law banning Muslim women from wearing full-face veils on the street.
Sarkozy was described as furious that such hateful crimes could be committed in France. In addition, the issues Merah cited as motivation are particularly sensitive as Sarkozy runs for reelection in two rounds of voting, scheduled for April 23 and May 6. The president is eager to be seen as a firm defender of security, lest any of his conservative support shift to the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen of the National Front.
“This man wanted to bring the republic to its knees,” Sarkozy said at a memorial service for the soldiers. “The republic did not bend. He will pay for his crimes.”
The only threat to France now, Sarkozy told Jewish and Muslim community leaders on Wednesday, would be the desire for revenge by one community against another.