Belgian suspect behind Paris attacks may have died in siege

At least two dead, eight arrested after police swat teams raid Saint-Denis building

Eyewitness footage captures French police arresting a suspect during a morning raid in the Saint-Denis region of Paris. Video: Reuters

 

The Belgian jihadist suspected of masterminding the Paris terror atrocities was reportedly killed when police stormed a flat in the north of the city, although French officials said bodies of those killed in the siege have not yet been identified.

Eight people were arrested after police swat teams raided the building in the Saint-Denis suburb early on Wednesday morning.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said they did not include Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to be the ringleader of last Friday’s massacres, or Salah Abdeslam, one of the suspected gunmen who is now the focus of an international manhunt.

Two European officials told the Washington Post Abaaoud had been killed during the seven-hour police operation.

Two people died, one of whom was a woman who blew herself up, but officials have not yet been able to identify the bodies due to their condition, Mr Molins said.

Discarded phone

The raid was launched after a discarded mobile phone and tapped telephone conversations allowed investigators to identify a series of safe houses, with the suggestion that Abaaoud may have been holed up in a apartment less than a mile from the Stade de France, where one of the terror attacks took place.

Police fired about 5,000 rounds of ammunition during a pre-dawn exchange of gunfire that lasted about an hour as the terrorist cell barricaded themselves in the hideout.

Two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters that the St Denis cell had been planning a fresh attack. “This new team was planning an attack on La Defense,” one source said, referring to a high-rise neighbourhood on the outskirts of Paris that is home to top banks and businesses.

Heavily armed police squads initially were thwarted by an armoured door and had to use assault guns, sniper rifles, grenades and explosives during the “extremely difficult” and “complex” operation.

Two bodies were found in the rubble of the building after an explosion, thought to have been caused when a woman detonated a suicide vest.

Mr Molins said: “At least one terrorist killed herself with an explosive. The floor of the flat collapsed and the state of the bodies and what is left of them will demand some more investigation.”

He added: “I’m not in a position to give a precise and definitive number for the people who died, nor their identities, but there are at least two dead people.

“Two men were found inside the flat, one of whom was injured and arrested. The eight arrested included one woman and a man whose flat was used as a hideout by the terror cell and are being interrogated.”

Mr Molins said: “The identities of the people who were arrested in this building are not absolutely certain but Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam are not part of the people who have been arrested.”

Slightly injured

Several police officers were slightly injured during the raid and a police dog named Diesel was also killed.

France’s health minister earlier said 195 people remain in hospital after the attacks.

Minister Marisol Touraine told parliament that three of them are still in critical condition and 41 are in intensive care.

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France’s justice minister updated the overall number of injured to 368 people, up from 352.

A US official briefed on intelligence matters said Abaaoud was a key figure in an Islamic State external operations cell that US intelligence agencies have been tracking for months.

Abaaoud was believed to have escaped to Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but bragged in IS propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.

The site of Wednesday’s raid is just over a mile (less than two kilometres) from the Stade de France football stadium - three suicide bombers had blown themselves up outside the stadium during an international match on Friday.

They constituted one of three teams of attackers who also targeted a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre as well as popular night spots in a trendy Paris neighbourhood. IS has claimed responsibility for the carnage, which has left France in mourning and on edge.

On Wednesday, residents of Paris’s Saint-Denis neighbourhood were awakened by an explosion at about 4.20am local time.

Automatic gunfire

Amine Guizani said the blast was followed by the sound of grenades and automatic gunfire.

“It was continuous. It didn’t stop,” he said. “It lasted from 4.20am until 5.30am. It was a good hour. I couldn’t say how many shots were fired, but it was probably 500. Hundreds, definitely. There were maybe 10 explosions.”

Police cordoned off an area around the building in a narrow street lined with low-rise buildings. Riot police cleared people from the streets, pointing guns at residents to get them to move them off the roads.

“We tried to stop our children hearing the noise,” said Farah Appane, who lives about 80 yards from where the raid took place. “My 19-month-old was crying. Our eight-year-old said ‘What is it? Are there more attacks?”’

She said she could hear gunfire on and off for over an hour, followed by “one really huge boom”.

“It was when the woman exploded herself. It made our apartment shake, it was so strong,” Ms Appane said.

Mr Molins earlier said the operation began with a pre-dawn shootout and resulted in the capture of three people inside the apartment. Two others were detained while trying to hide in the rubble. The man who lived in the apartment and one of his acquaintances were also arrested.

Four police officers were slightly injured and a Swat team police dog was killed in the operation. The National Police said in a tweet that the seven-year-old Belgian Malinois dog, named Diesel, was “killed by terrorists”.

Mr Molins said the identities of those killed and arrested were still being verified, and “based on the work of forensic police, we’ll tell you who was in the apartment - and what consequences it will have for the development of the investigation”, he said.

Neither Mr Molins nor French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve would say whether some attackers might still be on the loose.

Police had said before the raids that they were hunting for two fugitives suspected of taking part, as well as any accomplices.

French authorities had previously said that at least eight people were directly involved in the bloodshed: seven who died in the attacks and one, Salah Abdeslam, who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium.

A Spanish security official said that French authorities have sent out a bulletin to police across Europe asking them to watch out for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Abdeslam.

Another involved

Officials have told the Associated Press they believe at least one other attacker was involved, taking the number to at least nine.

Surveillance video obtained by the AP also indicated that a team of three attackers carried out the shootings at one of the cafes. The video was among evidence authorities used in concluding that at least one other attacker was at large, the French officials indicated.

The brief clip shows two black-clad gunmen with automatic weapons calmly firing on the bar then returning towards a waiting car, whose driver was manoeuvring behind them. Authorities believe the car is the same black Seat-make vehicle that was found on Saturday with three Kalashnikovs inside.

The discrepancy in numbers adds to questions about how the cell was able to carry out its plot undetected.

French authorities have said most of the attackers identified so far were unknown to them. But two US officials said that many, though not all, of the attackers identified so far were on the US no-fly list.

The Paris attacks have galvanised international determination to confront IS in Syria and Iraq, bringing France, Russia and the United States closer to an alliance.

Speaking after Wednesday’s raid, French president Francois Hollande praised the bravery of the security services and said that France was “at war” with IS, which he called a global threat.

“It is the entire country that’s been attacked,” Mr Hollande told a gathering of French mayors. “For what it represents, the fight we are leading to eradicate terrorism. And simply for what we are.”

French fighter jets attacked IS targets in Syria for a third night, the defence ministry said. Mr Hollande said French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had left to support military operations against IS in Syria.

He called for a “large coalition” against IS militants to destroy a group that threatens the whole world and “commits massacres” in the Middle East.

French authorities declared a state of emergency after the attacks, and security forces have conducted 414 raids, making 60 arrests and seizing 75 weapons, including 11 military-style firearms, the interior ministry said.

Parliament is expected to vote by the end of the week to extend the state of emergency for three months.

Press Association