French police investigating the fatal shootings of a teacher and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday are hunting three soldiers who were expelled over claims they were neo-Nazis, the local Le Point newspaper reported.
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The men were all axed from their elite paratrooper regiment in 2008 after a photo surfaced of them giving Nazi salutes in front of a Swastika flag.
Monday's deadly shooting came just days after three soldiers — from the same 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment with which the dismissed trio served — were shot dead in broad daylight in Montauban 30 miles away last Thursday.
Photo that led to soldiers' dismissal from French army
Another solider was also shot in a Toulouse street by a motorcycle gunman on March 11.
Reports said all the victims were of Jewish, black or North African Arab background. Two of them were Muslim.
According to Le Point, "the profile of these men (dismissed soldiers) corresponds to the scant information investigators have on the Toulouse killer — that is to say muscular and tattooed."
In 2008, the French military identified a neo-Nazi trend in the regiment and proceeded to dismiss soldiers suspected of engaging in neo-Nazi activity.
Investigators confirmed they were looking into the possibility that the three former soldiers were linked to the attacks.
Jewish students in Paris honor Toulouse victims (Photo: AFP)
At the Ozar Hatorah school in an leafy residential neighborhood in Toulouse, the gunman killed a 30-year old Hebrew teacher, his children aged three and six, and another child, the eight-year-old daughter of the school's principal, who died in her father's arms as medics tried to resuscitate her. A 17-year-old boy was also wounded.
"He came on his motorbike, got off and shot a bullet in the air... Then he got out another gun and started shooting at everyone, at the children. He chased us into the school," Baroukh, a Jewish man living nearby who had come for morning prayers, told Reuters, declining to give his family name.
Laying wreath outside school in Toulouse (Photo: AP)
According to a source who is familiar with the investigation, the same 45-caliber weapon and the same stolen scooter used in the attack on the Jewish school in Toulouse, appeared to have been used in the two previous shooting attacks on French troops.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy rushed to Toulouse to visit the school with Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella group representing Jewish organizations.
Memorial ceremony in Toulouse (Photo: AFP)
"This act was odious, it cannot remain unpunished," Sarkozy said. "Barbarity, savagery and cruelty cannot win, hate cannot win. The republic is much stronger than all this," Sarkozy said, announcing a minute of silence in schools on Tuesday.
"We do not know the motivations of this criminal. Of course, by attacking children and a teacher who were Jewish, the anti-Semitic motivation appears obvious. Regarding our soldiers, we can imagine that racism and murderous madness are in this case linked," he said Monday night during a special prayer session for the victims at a Paris synagogue.
He said the terrorism alert in the region around Toulouse had been raised to scarlet, its highest level.
Military police reinforcements were rushed into the area and guards were deployed at mosques and synagogues in the region. In the United States, New York police ramped up security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions citywide.
Video surveillance footage showed the gunman bursting into the school and shooting one child at close range in the head, before fleeing on a motorbike, said Nicolas Yardeni, regional head of CRIF.
Hundreds of mourners in prayer caps gathered at the main synagogue in Toulouse, a bustling university town which is a hub for Europe's aerospace industry including aviation manufacturer Airbus. In Paris, thousands staged a silent evening march in central Place de la Republique, while political leaders joined a solemn remembrance ceremony at the grand synogogue.
The bodies of the victims were brought back to the school late Monday night (Israel time). Many local Jews arrived to pay their respects and pray.
Reuters, AP, AFP, Menachem Gantz (Yedioth Ahronoth) contributed to the report
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