TOULOUSE, France (AP) - An Islamic extremist who boasted of killing seven people to strike back at France died Thursday after jumping from his window, gun in hand, in a fierce shootout with police, authorities said.
Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Mohamed Merah, 23, a French citizen of Algerian descent who claimed links to al-Qaida, lept out after police entered his apartment Thursday and found him holed up in the bathroom.
His dramatic death ended a more than 32-hour standoff with an elite police squad trying to capture him alive. Merah was wanted in the deaths of seven people - three paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi - all killed since March 11 in what he reportedly told police was an attempt to "bring France to its knees."
A volley of gunfire resounded Thursday morning throughout the neighborhood in the southwestern city of Toulouse as police stormed the apartment, and two police officers were wounded in the firefight.
"The killer came out of the bathroom, firing with extreme violence," Gueant said, adding that the RAID squad had "never seen an assault like it."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said an investigation was under way to see if the suspect in a series of radical Islam-inspired killings had any accomplices.
Sarkozy also said anyone who regularly visits "websites which support terrorism or call for hate or violence will be punished by the law." He promised a crackdown on anyone who goes abroad "for the purposes of indoctrination in terrorist ideology."
Police said, during hours of negotiations Wednesday when the standoff first began, Merah admitted to being proud of the seven slayings he carried out in three motorcycle shooting attacks around Toulouse. They are believed to be the first killings inspired by Islamic radical motives in France in more than a decade.
Authorities said Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent, espoused a radical form of Islam and had been to Afghanistan and the Pakistani militant stronghold of Waziristan, where he claimed to have received training from al-Qaida.
Elite police squads had set off sporadic blasts throughout the night and into the morning - some blew off the apartment's shutters - to pressure Merah to give up. A new set of detonations, known as flash bangs, resounded at 10:30 a.m. (0930 GMT), signaling the end to the standoff.
Gueant said police "went in by the door, taking off the door first. They also came in by the windows."
He said police used special video equipment to search the second-floor apartment but found him nowhere, until the special instruments surveyed the bathroom.
"The killer came out" firing "with extreme violence," Gueant told reporters. Police "tried to protect themselves and fired back."
"Mohamed Merah jumped out the window, gun in hand, continuing to fire. He was found dead on the ground," Gueant said.
Gueant earlier had said police wanted to capture Merah alive.
Holed up alone in an otherwise evacuated apartment building, Merah clung to his few remaining assets, like a small arsenal and authorities' hopes of taking him alive. On Wednesday, he appeared to toy with police negotiators - first saying he would surrender in the afternoon, then saying he would surrender under the cover of darkness, then reneging on those pledges altogether.
Police said Merah told negotiators he killed the rabbi and three young children at a Jewish school on Monday and three French paratroopers before that to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and to protest the French army's involvement in Afghanistan. He was also upset over a French government ban last year on face-covering Islamic veils.
One other student and another paratrooper were wounded in his attacks.
Gueant defended France's efforts to fight terrorism over the past decade, saying 700 people have been detained and about 60 "Islamists with terrorist tendencies" are currently in French prisons.
Even before Merah's death, the lawyer who had defended him for years on a series of criminal charges predicted a dramatic and somber end to the standoff.
"He wants to show he is exceptional, omnipotent, and this approach can only end up as something tragic," Christian Etelin said on news channel i-Tele on Thursday.
He said Merah had tried to join the military but was rejected. He said Merah was also disillusioned after a string of convictions for petty crimes and after efforts to reduce his sentences through work programs failed.
"He felt rejected by the periods of detention he was handed out, and for his wish to defend France in the army. Now, he is in a process of hate," Etelin said.
Police said they had to capture Merah to prevent more deaths.
"He has no regrets, except not having more time to kill more people, and he boasts that he has brought France to its knees," prosecutor Francois Molins told a news conference Wednesday.
Molins said Merah had plans to kill another soldier, which prompted the first police raid at around 3 a.m. Wednesday. After that erupted into a firefight, wounding two police, the standoff dragged on and on, with sporadic negotiations with the suspect that lasted through the night.