PARIS — A French television channel Monday defended its broadcast of taped exchanges between Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah and police, despite the outrage of victims' families and in the face of an official probe.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls has vowed to get to the bottom of the leak.
But police investigating the affair said the production house that made the news programme had refused to hand over all copies of the audio recordings.
And Catherine Nayl the news director TF1, which ran the programme on Sunday night, argued that it contained "very important information" that warranted being broadcast.
Merah killed seven people in March including three Jewish children in a series of attacks that shocked France.
The broadcasts extracts revealed how police negotiated with the gunman during a 32-hour siege at an apartment in Toulouse, southwest France, where they had cornered him after his killings, said Nayl.
"We did this with a perfect awareness of its news value," she told AFP.
"I think this document proves that, right up to the end of the raid, the negotiators were trying to detain Mohamed Merah -- and to detain him alive."
The recordings also showed that Merah "in cold blood and with absolute determination ... had created a character for himself," she added.
"All this information, which is new information in the Merah case, seemed important to us to broadcast," she said. "We are journalists, our job is to inform."
In the extracts, run on TF1's early evening news programme, the 23-year-old Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman could be heard defying the police.
"I know that there's a chance you could kill me, that's a risk I'm taking," he said. "So there we are -- know that you are up against a man who is not afraid of death."
He was eventually killed in a shootout as a crack police unit tried to storm his apartment.
The interior ministry said a criminal investigation had been opened into the leak of the tapes and the broadcast.
Valls said Monday he would "go all the way" to find out who had leaked the recordings.
But the police unit investigating the affair said Elephant and Co, the production house that produced the programme, had refused to hand over the tapes when their officers visited on Monday, a judicial source told AFP.
Investigators "asked for the recordings of the conversations used in the programme to be handed over voluntarily, but Elephant and Co refused to give them to police," said the source, confirming a French media report.
But Frederic Boisset, one of the programme's editors, said: "The material that they asked us for no longer exists.
"But we gave a copy of the reportage to police."
Lawyers for relatives of the victims have said the families were outraged by the broadcast and would file complaints.
Valls' predecessor, Claude Gueant, who was minister at the time of the killings and the siege, said: "This broadcast reawakens the considerable pain that the entire country felt, a real trauma."
Jean Tamalet, a lawyer for the brother of a soldier killed by Merah, said "one can only wonder" about the source of the leak when police and security services were the only ones known to have them.
The head of France's CSA broadcasting authority, Michel Boyon, said he was "profoundly shocked" by TF1's move and that the agency "would not hesitate" to impose penalties on broadcasters.
"It is not acceptable to mock the families' suffering in this way," he told Europe 1 radio.
The CSA said it would interview TF1 bosses on Tuesday as well as managers from rolling news channels BFM-TV and iTele which re-broadcast the recordings.
TF1 removed the recording from its website but it remained available on the Internet, including on video-sharing website YouTube.
"I find the families' reactions justified," said Richard Prasquier, the head of CRIF, the representative body of Jewish groups in France.
"Hearing this killer swagger is unbearable for the families," he told AFP.
Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian descent, killed three soldiers and four Jewish people, three of them children, between March 11 and 19.
Merah filmed his killings, and in March the pan-Arab television channel Al-Jazeera received a copy of the videos on a USB memory key at its Paris bureau, but decided not to run the footage.
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