A disturbing atmosphere of “déjà vu” possessed the city of Toulouse for seven hours on Wednesday after an armed man claiming to belong to al-Qaeda seized hostages in a bank close to the scene of the Mohamed Merah siege in March.
Although the 26-year-old claimed to be part of al-Qaeda, 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 on Wednesday 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 was killed by police.
Wednesday'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 the day 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 negotiate with him said he was a young man who has been troubled since childhood. They said 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.
Marie Gonzalez, who was evacuated from her home, said: “We used to be peaceful in this area... It's all starting again. I am scared.”
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 by the Merah murders and siege. The authorities sent a different elite unit, the gendarmerie assault force, the GIPN.
The gunman's sister told a 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”. - The Independent