TOULOUSE, France — A gunman took four people hostage Thursday in a bank in the southern French city of Toulouse and fired a shot, police said. French television reported that he claimed allegiance to the al-Qaida terrorist group.
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 Islamic radicals around France.
A man with a firearm entered a CIC bank branch in central Toulouse at about 11 a.m. (0900GMT) and took the bank director and three other people hostage, two police officials said. The officials said a single shot was fired but no injuries have been reported so far. The bank is in the same neighborhood where Mohamed Merah, the suspected gunman in the March attacks, was shot and killed by police.
The officials could not confirm the report on France's BFM television that the hostage-taker claimed ties to al-Qaida. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The neighborhood around the bank is cordoned off, and neighboring buildings were evacuated. Officers from a specialized police unit, the GIPN, arrived at the scene.
The gunman's identity is unclear.
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 school, or Happy Kids, said police advised that the security parameters in place could last throughout the day.
"I had to call the parents ... The police accompanied the group to the parents at the end of the street," Ruckly-Gravier said by telephone.
The Paris headquarters of cooperative bank CIC is in contact with police in Toulouse, bank spokesman Bruno Brouchiquan said. He would not comment further. 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. 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 Islamic 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 plotting the killings at a Jewish school in Toulouse and of paratroopers in Toulouse and nearby Montauban.
Elaine Ganley, Greg Keller and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.