A man claiming to be a member of al-Qaeda has taken four hostages in a bank in the southwestern French city of Toulouse, including the bank manager, police officials said today.
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 official said.
Another police source said there were four hostages.
Anti-terrorist police brought in from the nearby cities of Bordeaux and Marseille were at the scene and the area was sealed off.
The hostage-taker had asked for the elite Raid commando unit to come to the scene - the same squad which shot dead 23-year-old gunman Mohammed Merah in March after a long stand-off at his home, which was just metres from the site of todayís siege.
Police at the scene had not had direct contact with the hostage taker and were waiting for the Raid unit to arrive to begin negotiations.
Officials at the Interior Ministry and at CIC declined to comment. Toulouse has been hit in recent weeks with a number of short-lived hostage situations, including a drama last week at a local weather forecasting office, but none resulted in casualties.
Britain and Spain have been hit by al-Qaeda attacks over the past decade, following the US-led Nato intervention in Afghanistan, but France has not seen a major terror attack on its soil since the mid-1990s.
At that time the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried uot a spate of attacks, including the bombing of a commuter train in 1995 which killed eight people and injured 150.
The rise of al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, has posed a new challenge to French security services more used to watching Algerian-related militants. France raised its terror alert in late 2010 after al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden singled the country out as one of the worst offenders against Islam.
There have been a number of kidnappings of French citizens abroad, and officials say several plots to launch attacks on French soil have been foiled by intelligence services.
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