TOULOUSE, France — A gunman who ranted disjointedly about religious motives took four employees at a bank hostage on Wednesday before French police stormed in to arrest him – a new episode of apparent lone-wolf violence to jolt a region still reeling from a terrorist shooting spree that killed seven people three months ago.
The Toulouse state prosecutor waved off French media reports indicating that the man had claimed ties to al-Qaida, pointing instead to what he called the man's alleged history of psychiatric problems.
Authorities provided few details about the six-hour standoff, which ended after elite police stormed inside with guns blazing. A bank window bore a single bullet hole, and the bank's glass door lay shattered on the ground. The suspect was hospitalized for gunshot wounds to his left hand and the left thigh – neither life-threatening.
Prosecutor Michel Valet said the suspect's gun, which was used twice during the standoff, fired only rubber bullets and that he had no prior police record. Valet refused to identify the suspect by name or identify the religion that the suspect was referring to in "confused" diatribes about his claims.
"I am not a doctor, but we have objective elements that allow us to think and affirm that we're dealing with someone who suffers from considerable psychological problems and that his act is linked to these problems," Valet told reporters on the street a few hundred meters from the bank – in a zone cordoned off by scores of police.
"The claims of responsibility centered on badly defined, badly expressed religious claims and right now it is difficult to know what guided his behavior, which was anything but rational," he added.
Tensions have been high in Toulouse since March, when a gunman who police said claimed links to al-Qaida killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in the area. Those were France's worst terrorist attacks in years, and led to a crackdown on suspected Islamist radicals around France.
The CIC bank branch targeted Wednesday is in the same neighborhood where Mohamed Merah, the suspected gunman in the March attacks, was shot and killed by police after a long standoff. It also is near the police station where authorities were overseeing the operation to surround and negotiate with Merah.
French authorities purposely provided few details on Wednesday, presumably to give time for the suspect to recover and to allow investigators to comb over the case. The hostage-taking had some of the earmarks of the Merah case – a lone gunman, the same neighborhood – but Valet did not indicate whether investigators believed any connection existed between the cases. The prosecutor said he would speak more about the incident to reporters on Thursday.
In Wednesday's incident, the gunman the bank at about 11 a.m. (0900GMT) and took the bank director and three other bank employees hostage, police officials said. Authorities evacuated and cordoned off the neighborhood and began negotiations with the gunman, who released two female hostages mid-afternoon.
The prefect of the Haute-Garonne region, Henri-Michel Comet, said 150 police were mobilized, 30 of them from the elite GIPN squad.
Valet said that during negotiations, the gunman said he wanted to advertise the religious motivation behind his act. "The hostage-taker ... wants us to make it known that he is acting not for money, and that his motivations come from his religious conviction," Valet before the man was detained.
Gunshots were heard from the site around the time the gunman was captured at around 5 p.m. local time (15.00 GMT).
French President Francois Hollande issued a statement praising the "professionalism" and "efficiency" of the police involved in the raid, but the incident deeply shook many area residents.
Gauthier Josse, a 12-year-old middle-school student, said he rode a half-hour on his bicycle to the scene to witness the standoff. He recalled being "terrified" by the Merah case, but insisted he didn't want to miss Wednesday's police intervention.
"When I first heard about this today, in addition to the Merah case, I thought: `This will never end. In another two months, there will be another, and another two months after that,'" he said.
Among those evacuated were 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds from a private language school next to the bank. Valerie Ruckly-Gravier, who heads the Happy Momes, or Happy Kids, school said police advised that the security parameters in place could last throughout the day.
The Paris headquarters of cooperative bank CIC was in contact with police in Toulouse, bank spokesman Bruno Brouchiquan said. The bank describes itself as the second-largest retail bank in France and the leading bank insurance group, with thousands of branches in France and around the world.
The hostage-taker said he wanted the elite RAID national police force to come negotiate with him, police said. In March, the RAID police force led negotiations and a 32-hour standoff with Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, in his Toulouse apartment. Merah was shot in the head in a gunfight at the end of the standoff.
French authorities described Merah as an Islamist radical who had trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. French intelligence officials said at the time that they found no operational ties between Merah and al-Qaida despite his claim.
His brother is in custody after being handed preliminary charges of complicity to plot the killings at a Jewish school in Toulouse and of paratroopers in Toulouse and nearby Montauban.
Wednesday's hostage-taking came amid heightened concerns in France about homegrown radicals following the Merah affair. Pakistan announced Wednesday that authorities have arrested a Frenchman reportedly linked to one of the masterminds of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
Elaine Ganley, Thomas Adamson, Greg Keller and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.