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Man claiming Al Qaeda ties takes hostages in Toulouse, France

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Bruno Martin/REUTERS

(Read caption) Police block the street at the scene where a man, claiming to be a member of al Qaeda, has taken four hostages in a bank in Toulouse June 20. The man took several hostages in a branch of French bank CIC and fired a shot after an attempted armed robbery apparently went wrong, a police union official reported.

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A man claiming ties to Al Qaeda has taken four hostages in a bank in Toulouse, France – the same area where Mohammed Merah killed seven people earlier this year before being shot dead by police.

After firing a shot, the hostage-taker demanded to speak to the elite police unit, RAID, behind Mr. Merah's death. Merah, a French citizen of Algerian descent who also claimed ties to Al Qaeda, killed three children and a rabbi at a local Jewish school and three French soldiers in a nearby town in March. He was killed by police in his apartment after a 32-hour siege.

Police are not sure yet whether the hostage-taker's Al Qaeda claims are real or "fantasy," according to the BBC. Police official Cedric Delage said the hostage situation evolved from a failed armed robbery at a bank that is only 330 feet from Merah's apartment. The bank is also very close to the barracks where RAID was based during the siege on the apartment.

Following Merah's death, the government investigated whether he had any accomplices. The BBC reports he was suspected of having one, and Associated Press reports that Merah's brother is in custody on preliminary charges of having had a hand in planning the March attacks.

In the wake of Merah's attacks, the French government cracked down on local militants. It staged raids across the country that targeted both "lone wolves" and militant networks such as the banned Forsanne Alizza, and deporting several Muslim preachers that the government believed were radicalizing local Muslims. 

Merah's attacks and the subsequent raids took place in the midst of an intense presidential campaign. Then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, who trailed his rival François Hollande, had a reputation for being tough on security and was accused of capitalizing on the attacks, using them to gain ground in the polls. Mr. Hollande, who has built no such record on security issues, nonetheless won the election and the issue has since faded into the background, overshadowed by major economic concerns.

Little is known about today's hostage-taker at this point, but if he turns out to be a member of France's Muslim community, whether a native or an immigrant, it will shine an unwanted spotlight on a community that often feels unwelcome and under siege for the actions of a small number of radical individuals, as The Christian Science Monitor reported following the March attacks.

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