By Brian Love
PARIS (Reuters) - The brother of an al Qaeda-inspired gunman who murdered seven people was questioned at France's domestic intelligence hub in Paris on Saturday after he said he was "proud" of his sibling's killing spree, according to a police source.
President Nicolas Sarkozy met ministers and police chiefs to discuss the consequences of Mohamed Merah's massacre, which has raised troubling national security questions four weeks ahead of a presidential election.
Sarkozy is facing an uphill re-election battle and his chief intelligence adviser sought to head off media questions about the handling of the affair in the southwest city of Toulouse.
Abdelkader Merah, elder brother of the 23-year-old gunman who died in a hail of police gunfire on Thursday, was taken by car from police barracks in Toulouse, where he was first interrogated, for transfer to the capital for more questioning, along with his wife, a judicial source said.
Police found explosives in a car Abdelkader owned, according to the public prosecutor leading the case. He was already known to security services for having helped smuggle jihadist militants into Iraq in 2007, prosecutor Francois Molins said.
Abdelkader and his wife were arrested on Wednesday as negotiators sought their help in trying to persuade Merah to turn himself in. Merah's mother, arrested at the same time, was released on Friday evening, the public prosecutor's office said.
Her lawyer, Jean-Yves Gougnaud, said she told him "she saw nothing coming" and felt guilty for what had happened.
Merah was killed by a sniper after a gunbattle with police that ended a more than 30-hour siege at his Toulouse apartment, during which he admitted killing three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three soldiers in three separate attacks.
Abdelkader Merah and his spouse, whose name was not given, were transferred to a detention centre at the headquarters of the DCRI domestic intelligence agency in a western Paris suburb for questioning by anti-terrorism specialists.
A judge was likely to decide on Sunday, a judicial source said, whether there were grounds for opening legal proceedings over possible links with the attacks by Mohamed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin.
KILLER'S BROTHER "PROUD" OF HIM
A police source said on Saturday that at a closed hearing in Toulouse he had declared himself "proud" of his brother's killings and admitted helping Mohamed steal the scooter used in all seven murders. He had denied any knowledge of his brother's murderous plans, however, the source added.
A Colt 45 pistol found in a Renault car was formally identified as the weapon used in the killing spree. The police source also said Abdelkader had acknowledged complicity in the robbery of the scooter his brother used in the three attacks.
DCRI head Bernard Squarcini told Le Monde newspaper on Friday there was no evidence Merah belonged to any radical Islamist network and he appeared to have turned fanatic alone.
Yet investigators are still trying to establish whether Merah had any logistical or ideological support or was a genuine "lone wolf."
Merah's brother, and a sister, were known to have studied the Koran in Egypt in 2010 and French police had in the past found links between them and a radical Islamist group based in southern France led by a Syrian-born Frenchman dubbed "The White Emir" by French media because of his fair hair and beard.
The shootings shifted the focus of political debate away from France's economic difficulties and played to the strengths of Sarkozy as he fights for re-election in a two-round vote in April and May.
Polls show that about two-thirds of voters approved of his handling of the Toulouse crisis, which reduced his challengers, chief among them Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande, to the role of bystander.
Sarkozy's intelligence adviser, Ange Mancini, sought to head off increasing media debate about whether Merah could have been stopped before he started killing, saying the intelligence and police services had done an "exemplary" job and that it was always easy to ask after the fact if there were flaws.
"Obviously the aim now will be to dig deeper, not just to know more about the case in question, but to see whether there are other lessons, to try to identify whether anyone else might be heading down the same road," Mancini told BFM TV.
He said Mohamed Merah appeared to have purchased guns and other weapons with around 20,000 euros ($26,500) he had seemingly accumulated from robberies or hold-ups.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said earlier this week the issue of any possible failings would have to be clarified in due course. Mancini said: "I have a lot of respect for Alain Juppe but he is not an intelligence and intervention specialist."
An opinion poll released on Saturday appeared to contradict the idea that national security had shot to the top of the agenda for voters despite a week when national and international media provided round-the-clock coverage of the killings and the siege that culminated with a shootout and death of Merah.
The Ifop polling agency said 53 percent of people believed France faced a high risk of terrorist attack. It was the lowest worry score recorded since Ifop started sounding people out on the issue at the time of the suicide airliner attacks in the United States in 2001, when the number who perceived a high risk of terror attack was 78 percent, according to IFOP.
Around 30 people, mostly young girls, held a brief rally in a heavily immigrant district of Toulouse on Saturday in memory of Mohamed Merah, who they said was one of their own regardless of what he had done.
"I think what much have influenced him was those multiple trips (abroad), that he was unable to deal with all that," said one girl, who wore a full-face veil - which is outlawed in public in France - and declined to give her name.
French police said Merah paid several visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan - both havens of Islamist jihadis. ($1 = 0.7540 euros)
(Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Toulouse, Yves Clarisse, Brian Love and Andrew Osborn in Paris; Editing by Mark Heinrich)