Police have lost contact with a 24-year-old gunman suspected of killing seven people in the name of aliQaida and there has been no sign of life from his apartment in southwestern France for 10 hours, a minister said.
More than a day after 300 police first surrounded the five-story building in a suburb of the city of Toulouse, Mohamed Merah, who has confessed to killing three soldiers, three Jewish children and a rabbi, had yet to give himself up.
"There was no movement during the night. We hope he is still alive," French Interior Minister Claude Gueant told RTL radio on Thursday. He said two shots had been heard during the night.
"Despite renewed efforts all through the night to reestablish contact by voice and radio, there has been no contact, no showing from him," Gueant said, adding that he still hoped Merah could be captured alive.
Rain poured down on police, firemen, media and around a dozen bystanders who spent the night outside the apartment.
Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, boasted to police negotiators on Wednesday night that he had brought France to its knees and said his only regret was not having been able to carry out plans for more killings.
He has told negotiators that he killed the seven to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children and because of French army involvement in Afghanistan. He filmed the shootings of the children and the rabbi on Monday using a camera strapped to him.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose handling of the crisis may influence voters less than five weeks from an election in which he is running for a second term, promised on Wednesday that justice would be done and asked people not to take vengeance.
France’s elite RAID commando unit detonated three explosions just before midnight on Wednesday, flattening the main door of the building and blowing a hole in the wall, after it became clear Merah did not mean to keep a promise to turn himself in.
They continued to fire shots roughly every hour, and stepped up the pace at dawn with two loud explosions that sounded like grenades. Analysts said police were attempting to exhaust the gunman and make him easier to capture unharmed.
"These were moves to intimidate the gunman who seems to have changed his mind and does not want to surrender," said French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.
Merah, who authorities say has a weapons cache in the apartment including an Uzi and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, wounded two officers on Wednesday.
"What we want is to capture him alive, so that we can bring him to justice, know his motivations and hopefully find out who were his accomplices, if there were any," Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told TF1 television.