French intelligence under fire over al Qaeda shooter

PARIS, March 24 (Reuters) The French government was forced to reject accusations on Friday that intelligence lapses allowed a young Muslim with a violent criminal record, spotted twice in Afghanistan, to become the first al Qaeda-inspired killer to strike on its soil.

Hardened by battling Islamic militants from its former North African colony of Algeria, France's security services have long been regarded as among the most effective in Europe, having prevented militant attacks on French soil for the last 15 years.

Opposition politicians, including far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, suggested that negligence or errors had permitted Mohamed Merah, 23, to carry out three deadly shootings within 10 days before he was identified, located and killed.

But Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the police and intelligence agencies had done an exemplary job, and Interior Minister Claude Gueant said there had been no grounds for arresting the gunman or restricting his movements prior to this month's attacks, despite him being on a U.S. "no-fly" list. "Resolving a criminal case of this importance in 10 days, I believe that's practically unprecedented in the history of our country," Fillon told RTL radio.

In an interview with the daily Le Figaro to be published on Saturday, Gueant said people could not be interrogated for having criminal thoughts.

A French member of the RAID special police forces unit (R) shakes hands with a paratrooper (L) as they come back after the assault on the besieged flat of Mohamed Merah (AFP)

"Neither he, nor those that he frequented, had ever shown the least sign of being dangerous," he said, adding that many people were on U.S. no-fly lists simply for having visited countries like Pakistan. "I remind you that this man was French and therefore it was impossible to forbid him to move around in France."

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had appeared to acknowledged on Thursday that there were grounds to question possible security flaws, saying: "We need to bring some clarity to this."

Merah shot dead three Jewish children and four adults in three attacks despite having been under surveillance by the DCRI domestic intelligence agency, which questioned him as recently as November.

"Since the DCRI was following Mohamed Merah for a year, how come they took so long to locate him?" Socialist party security spokesman Francois Rebsamen asked on the JDD.fr website.

Merah's elder brother Abdelkader, 29, who is being questioned by police, was also on a security watch list after being linked with the smuggling of Jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007, government officials said.
The left-leaning daily Liberation asked in an editorial whether the intelligence services had not "failed miserably".

"How could they have so underestimated the potential danger of an individual they already knew?"
Merah, a French citizen of Algerian extraction, amassed a cache of at least eight guns under the noses of French intelligence, including several Colt .45 pistols of the kind he used in the shootings, but also at least one Uzi submachine gun, a Sten gun and a pump action shotgun.

In Washington, two U.S. officials said Merah was on a U.S. government "no fly" list, barring him from boarding any U.S.-bound aircraft. His name had been on the list for some time.

Rebsamen said that after the shooting of two paratroopers in Montauban, near Toulouse, on March 15, Merah's name was on top of a DCRI list of 20 people to be particularly closely watched in the southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region. Yet the agency appeared to have lost trace of him.

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