2 new arrests in French attack on Jewish school

Last Updated: Tue, Dec 04, 2012 18:15 hrs

Two arrests in southern France on Tuesday bolstered long-simmering suspicions that the country's worst terrorist killings in years involved multiple players and were not the work of a "lone-wolf" radical Islamist.

The attacks in March around the southern city of Toulouse left seven dead — including Jewish schoolchildren and French paratroopers — and terrified France. Lawyers for the victims' families hailed Tuesday's arrests as a sign of progress in the investigation, which has brought to light lapses by the country's security services.

A 38-year-old Muslim convert who used to live in the same housing project as the gunman and his family was arrested Tuesday, the Paris prosecutor's office said. The new suspect's former girlfriend, also 38, was arrested as well, according to the prosecutor's office.

They were the first arrests in the investigation since the March killings of nine — three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi.

The man and woman were being questioned in Toulouse by anti-terrorist investigators, who can hold them in custody up to four days before filing charges or letting them go.

Gunman Mohamed Merah, 23, was killed in a shootout with police soon after the attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse. Authorities initially described him as a lone extremist who carefully, quietly plotted his killings in the name of radical Islam.

But in the ensuing days, one of Merah's brothers, Abdelkader, was arrested and handed preliminary charges of complicity in plotting the killings. He remains in custody, though his exact role remains unclear.

Unconfirmed reports emerged that a third man may have helped in the planning, notably in stealing the scooter used in all three attacks. The Merahs' oldest brother, Abdelghani, suggested in a recent French TV interview that one of his brothers' acquaintances may have played a role.

The man arrested Tuesday was picked up in the city of Albi in southern France, and the woman was arrested in Toulouse, the prosecutor's office said.

The man is the key suspect, an official with the prosecutor's office said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss details of the investigation.

A lawyer for the family of three of the victims said he hopes the man arrested Tuesday was the one who helped steal the scooter and can shed more light on what happened.

Patrick Klugman described that theft as an "ideological move" made when Merah was already preparing the killings. "This scooter is the link between the three attacks," the lawyer said.

"We know that (Mohamed Merah) wasn't working alone," said Klugman, who represents the family of rabbi Jonathan Sandler and two of his children, both killed when Merah opened fire on then school.

"We want all the people who helped him to be questioned, charged, brought to justice," the attorney told The Associated Press.

He called it "reassuring" that investigators are pursuing possible accomplices. The victims' families have long urged authorities to ensure that no one involved is still at large.

Merah had traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan and was under loose surveillance by French security services, which have since promised to tighten up procedures.

Samia Maktouf, the lawyer for the father of one of the paratroopers killed, told the Sipa news agency that she is expecting more arrests of suspected accomplices "in France and abroad."

Merah's sister has also come under scrutiny. The Paris prosecutor's office has opened a preliminary inquiry into comments by Souad Merah in which she says she's "proud" of her brother. The comments were recorded by French television on a hidden camera, and investigators are trying to establish the conditions under which she spoke.


Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.

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