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Le Havre hostage-taker consumed by plight of Palestinians, say police

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PARIS (Reuters) – The armed man who seized six hostages in a French bank on Thursday spoke to negotiators of hardships facing Palestinians and called himself a mujahid but made no reference to Islamist groups, a police source involved in the operation said.

The 34-year-old suspect had a history of mental health illness and spent time in a psychiatric hospital after taking several hostages in another bank in 2013, two security sources said.

On that occasion, he demanded social housing for himself and a handicapped son, they added.

During the six hour-long negotiations with police in Le Havre on Thursday, the suspect referred to the Prophet Mohammed and at times spoke in Arabic. But he never expressed support for Islamic State or other jihadist groups, the police source familiar with the negotiations said.

“He constantly asked for Palestinian children to be freed from Israeli jails, and Palestinians under 40 to pray in Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem,” the source said.

The man was known to law enforcement agencies. He was on a “Fiche S” security agency watch list that includes individuals the authorities consider susceptible to religious radicalisation, two police sources said on Thursday.

Investigators say there has been a trend of mental illness and religious radicalisation in some attacks that have shaken France in recent years, making predicting behaviour difficult.

“These are hazardous profiles, you never know what to expect from them,” the police source close to the negotiations said.

The suspect lived in Paris at the time of the 2013 incident and later moved to the northern Seine-Maritime department.

He told the police trying to coax him out of the bank in Le Havre that he was carrying a bomb and threatened to use it if police came closer.

“But he never physically or verbally abused his hostages and negotiations never broke down,” the source said, adding that no explosives were found.

The man had wanted to surrender at dawn, after the first Muslim prayer of the day, but walked out shortly after 22:45 (2045 GMT) with the green flag of Palestinian militant group Hamas wrapped around his shoulders, the source close to the negotiations said.

All six hostages were freed unharmed.

Reuters was not immediately able to ascertain whether the suspect had a lawyer.

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