Analysis: Less than ideal outcome, but this was a tough call for police

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WITH the death of the prime suspect for the racist killings in the south of France, some form of rough justice has been done.

Yet even before forensic evidence at the scene is completed, we can be sure there will be contrasting views from armchair pundits around the globe querying whether the French authorities could have done better.

In an ideal world, it would have been far more civilised if the suspect had been captured alive so the full weight of French law could be applied – and so leads on possible associates could be more swiftly followed up. Almost certainly, with huge national and international interest , the orders from the French interior ministry to the police commander on the ground will have been to “play it long”, in the hope the gunman could be persuaded to surrender. Certainly this was the overarching instruction given to the SAS by then home secretary, Willie Whitelaw, back in May 1980 when a siege situation built up in the Iranian Embassy in London. However, negotiating then with six Arabs who wanted their demands to be met – and above all hoped they would get out alive – is very different to dealing with what sounds like a trapped psychopath whose only probable demand was the chance to kill again.

So, on this occasion, there will have been a huge caveat to the orders given, this being that the local commander would have the authority to mount an immediate assault if further loss of life looked imminent. This is probably what happened, after “playing it long “ broke down. Nevertheless, there are other reports which indicate that because negotiators had not heard from the gunman for some time, the authorities assumed he might be dead and decided it was time to gain entry anyway.

Equally, what must be appreciated in such complex situations is that for the first 24 to 36 hours, any unit faced with a hasty assault is at a severe disadvantage. Until they have had time to build up a clear intelligence picture of every nook and cranny in the building concerned, most specialists would want to wait until a deliberate plan of attack could be properly formulated. In this instance, no-one could be sure if the apartments had been rigged with explosives or booby traps. It will have been very hard to cover every possibility.

• Clive Fairweather is a former deputy commander of the SAS.