By Guillaume Serries and John Irish
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - A man who said he was a member of al Qaeda and armed with explosives was holding several people hostage in a bank in the southwestern French city of Toulouse on Wednesday, police said.
He released one of the hostages in exchange for food and water in the early afternoon.
The man took the hostages, who included the bank manager, in a branch of French bank CIC around mid-morning and fired a shot after an attempted armed robbery apparently went wrong, UNSA police union official Cedric Delage said.
A second shot was fired in mid-afternoon, according to two police sources.
"The man has made clear that he is not acting for money, but for religious reasons," Prosecutor Michel Valet told reporters.
Police believed four hostages were involved in the latest drama to hit the Toulouse region since a young al Qaeda-inspired gunman shot dead three soldiers, a rabbi and three Jewish children in March.
The hostage-taker 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 standoff at his home, which was just meters from the site of Wednesday's siege.
Toulouse, a university town which does not have a reputation as a hotbed of religious or militant tension, 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.
Anti-terrorist police brought in from the nearby cities of Bordeaux and Marseille were at the scene and the area was sealed off.
"You have to ask why somebody who claims to be from al Qaeda would go to a bank when there are better locations to target if you have a grudge against the state," Delage added.
A police source said police had identified the hostage-taker and brought in a person who knew him to help with negotiations. The source said the suspect had a name of North African origin and had spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
A bomb disposal team was also sent after the man told them he had explosives.
"He has released one hostage in return for food and water," another source said.
Officials at the Interior Ministry and at CIC declined to comment.
"The negotiator will try to understand this person's motives and establish whether this is just a hold-up that went wrong, with the hostage-taking just a last resort, or whether the hostage-taking was prepared well in advance," former RAID negotiator Laurent Combalbert told i>Tele television.
Britain and Spain have been hit by al Qaeda attacks over the past decade, following the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan, but France has not seen a major attack on its soil since the mid-1990s.
At that time the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out 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 has posed a new challenge to French security services more used to watching Algerian-related militants. France raised its terrorism 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.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Bon; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Alison Williams)