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French shooting suspect not jailed in Afghanistan: governor

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - An Afghan provincial governor on Wednesday denied statements by a senior prison official that French school shooting suspect Mohamed Merah was jailed for bombings in Afghanistan in 2007 and escaped months later.

Citing prison documents, Kandahar prison chief Ghulam Faruq had told Reuters that Afghan security forces detained Merah on December 19, 2007, and that he was sentenced to three years in jail for planting bombs in the southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace.

A senior Kandahar intelligence source confirmed Faruq's account and said he had a file on a French Algerian of the same name, who was arrested in 2007 and broke out of prison in 2008.

But the Kandahar governor's office said that account was "baseless", citing judicial records. "Security forces in Kandahar have never detained a French citizen named Mohammad Merah," the governor's spokesman, Ahmad Jawed Faisal, said.

Merah's lawyer in France, Christian Etelin, said his client was in prison in France from December 2007 until September 2009, serving an 18-month sentence for robbery with violence, and therefore could not have been in Afghanistan at the time of the Kandahar jailbreak.

Merah, a French citizen of Algerian origin, is suspected of killing seven people in the name of the al Qaeda militant network, including three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in southwestern France.

Faruq had said that Merah escaped along with up to 1,000 prisoners, including 400 Taliban insurgents, during an attack on southern Afghanistan's main Sarposa Prison in June 2008, when the Taliban blew apart the main gate with a big truck bomb.

French Interior Minister Claude Gueant said Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and had carried out his killings in revenge for French military involvement abroad.

In Pakistan, an intelligence official who declined to be identified said Merah had never been arrested there. "We have no information about him," the Pakistani official said.

(Writing by Jack Kimball and Rob Taylor; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Paul Taylor in Paris; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)

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