A disturbing atmosphere of “déjà vu” possessed the city of Toulouse for seven hours today after an armed man claiming to belong to Al-Qa’ida seized hostages in a bank close to the scene of the Mohamed Merah siege in March.
The stand-off ended when an elite police squad captured the gunman and released his two remaining hostages unharmed.
Although the 26 year-old claimed to be part of Al Qa’ida, his family said he was a schizophrenic with no particular interest in religion or politics. It appeared, however, that he had targeted the Côte Pavée area of eastern Toulouse because of its associations with Merah.
The young man seized four hostages this morning in a CIC bank branch about 200 metres from the flat where Merah was cornered in March after murdering seven people, including three Jewish children. After a 32 hour siege, Merah died in a hail of police bullets.
Today’s hostage-taker was shot in the leg when an elite gendarmerie force entered the bank in late afternoon. The two remaining hostages, including the bank manager, were freed unharmed. Two other women hostages had been released by the gunman earlier in exchange for water and food.
The man gave his name as “Boumaza”. He had originally attempted to hold up the bank but later ordered police negotiators to announce that he was motivated by religion, not money.
His sister, and a friend who came to the scene to try to negotiate with him, said that he was a young man who has been troubled since childhood. They said that he had recently broken off a treatment programme for a form of schizophrenia.
Nonetheless, the siege, so close to the scene of the violent end of the Merah drama sent a shock-wave of alarm through Toulouse. The French police took no chances, sending a large force to deal with the incident from the outset and evacuating surrounding buildings, including two schools.
“Why would someone connected to Al Quaida attack a bank?” one police source asked, while the siege was in progress. “He would be more likely to target something that represents the state or another group…”.
At one point, the hostage-taker requested the presence of the same elite police unit, RAID, which killed Merah. This implied that – politically-motivated or not - he had been influenced or inspired by the Merah murders and siege. As if to make a point, the authorities sent a different elite unit, the gendarmerie assault force, the GIPN.
The gunman’s sister told the French news agency that she had spoken to him by mobile phone. “He didn’t seem scared. He seemed fine,” she said. She described him as a young man full of “anger”, who “feared the world”.
In one surreal moment, a journalist managed to get through on a land line to one of the hostages. She said calmly that she was “only authorised to talk to bank customers”.
Eventually, after a nearly seven hour stand-off, the GIPN, detonated three stun grenades and stormed the building.
Local people were disturbed to find that their usually quiet district was the scene of another police siege. Marie Gonzalez, who was evacuated from her home with three children, said: “We used to be peaceful in this area…It’s all starting again. I am scared.”