Key suspect in Paris attacks captured in Brussels raid; four others arrested – Washington Post

Belgian counterterrorism police raided an apartment block in Brussels on Friday and arrested Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in last year’s bloody terrorist attacks in Paris, after a shootout that left him wounded, European leaders said.

Four other people were also arrested, three of them members of Abdeslam’s family, as police carried out three raids over a four-hour operation, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said. One of the four, identified as Monir Ahmed al-Hadj, was wounded, the spokesman, Eric van der Sypt, told reporters in Brussels.

Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national of Moroccan descent, was shot in the leg during the operation, officials said.

Police say Abdeslam drove a car to Paris from Brussels, where he lived, as part of a plan to participate in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded at least 368 others. But he fled the scene, possibly after shedding a suicide vest. Seven other attackers died, including one of his brothers. The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for the assault.

Abdeslam, a resident of the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels before the attacks, had eluded authorities since then despite a massive manhunt across Europe.

Hours after the initial raid, explosions were heard in a Brussels neighborhood where police searched for other suspected terrorists. Belgium’s VTM television channel reported that another suspect was arrested there.

Van der Sypt said the three Abdeslam relatives who were arrested Friday had been sheltering him. The fifth person, Hadj, was transported to a Brussels hospital after being wounded. the spokesman said.

During separate raids Thursday in the Forest district of Brussels, police uncovered a fake Syrian passport, van der Sypt said.

Following the arrest of Abdeslam, President Obama called French President Francois Hollande and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to congratulate them.

Obama “commended the work of Belgian security services and noted that this significant arrest was the result of hard work and close cooperation between Belgian and French law enforcement authorities,” the White House said in a statement.

Michel wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations from @POTUS Belgium and France stand united in the fight against terrorism.”

In a news conference Friday evening, Michel hailed the arrests as “a huge success in the battle against terrorism and against this awful negation of human life.”

Speaking alongside Hollande, Michel said the arrests were the result of close coordination between French and Belgian law enforcement. He said Obama, in the congratulatory call, “encouraged us to go on struggling for the values of liberty.”

Hollande said Abdeslam had been directly involved in the “preparation, organization and perpetration” of the attacks on several civilian targets in Paris. France, he said, would seek Abdeslam’s extradition.

Abdeslam was considered the logistics chief for the attacks. He visited Paris before the killings to scout out sites, rented cars, rented apartments and dropped off several attackers before they struck, investigators have said.

Hollande said Friday’s arrests “give us the chance to know the whole truth.” Although the Brussels operation has ended, he said, police would continue to collect evidence at the site of the arrests.

Michel confirmed that three people were captured in the raids in Brussels and that two of them were injured.

Both leaders suggested that Friday’s raids would not be the final ones connected to the Paris attacks and that the web of accomplices was wider than authorities originally believed.

“We have to catch all of those who allowed or facilitated this attack,” Hollande said. “There are more of those people than we thought.” He said the families of the victims “have been looking forward” to the arrest of everyone connected with the “abomination” inflicted on Paris.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said that “cleaning up Molenbeek,” which has earned a reputation as a hotbed of Islamist radicalism in Europe, is “still not finished.” He told Belgium’s RTBF broadcaster, “The jihadists must be neutralized, and not a single person more be radicalized.” He also said Belgium would agree to France’s extradition request for Abdeslam.

Terrorism analysts said Friday’s arrests could mark a turning point in an investigation that has so far failed to unearth some of the most basic details of the Paris attack plot, including where it was hatched and by whom.

“It’s really crucial,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. “Salah Abdeslam had a role in virtually every stage of the planning and the preparation. He could be the missing link to the masterminds behind the attack.”

Belgian federal prosecutors said Friday that the fingerprints of Abdeslam, one of Europe’s most wanted men, were found in an apartment raided by police earlier this week. But they declined to give further details on an ongoing operation.

A shootout Tuesday led to the death of one suspect and the wounding of four Belgian police officers.

The raid on Friday took place about 4:45 p.m. local time in Molenbeek, not far from the headquarters of the European Union, which on Friday afternoon announced a landmark deal with Turkey on Europe’s migrant crisis.

Belgian television showed black-clad counterterrorism police with Belgian shepherds standing guard in Molenbeek as dusk fell over Brussels.

At one point during the raid, armed security forces were shown dragging a limping man with a hoodie over his head out of an apartment building and into a car.

Hollande was already in Brussels on Friday to attend a summit of E.U. leaders. Michel, the Belgian prime minister, rushed out of the 28-leader meeting clutching a phone to his ear. Hollande later joined Michel in his office as they awaited news of the raid.

Three senior European officials confirmed that Abdeslam was wounded in the raid.

“We got him,” Theo Francken, Belgium’s secretary of state for asylum and migration, wrote on Twitter.

Witnesses to the raid said they heard a fusillade of shots in the middle of a residential part of Molenbeek.

Police “began shouting into a megaphone, telling a person to ‘put your hands in the air,’” a resident identified as Ilias told Belgium’s RTL television. “I didn’t understand what was happening. My son wouldn’t stop crying. We heard gunshots. It didn’t stop. A dozen gunshots. We saw a person on the ground. When I came to the window, they ordered me to go back in and close the curtains,” he said.

Friday’s raid took place Molenbeek’s Rue des Quatre-Vents, less than four blocks from the area’s town hall. Abdeslam grew up in a modest residence across a cobbled square from the Molenbeek town hall, the seat of local authorities who have been criticized for doing little to monitor the growing radicalization in their midst.

More than an hour after Abdeslam was detained, Belgian RTBF radio said that detonations could still be heard on the Rue des Quatre-Vents.

Abdeslam’s older brother, Brahim Abdeslam, detonated a suicide vest on the Boulevard Voltaire on the night of the attacks. It is widely believed that Salah Abdeslam was supposed to be on a suicide mission that night, as well. But instead, he slipped through a French and Belgian dragnet, and had not been definitively seen or heard from since.

It is still not known exactly why he did not die in the attacks. Law enforcement officials speculated that he may have had a change of heart and fled.

For months, he was the most wanted man in Europe. Law enforcement agencies across the continent hunted for a man who could provide vital clues about the still-murky origins of a plot that spilled blood at a variety of venues across Paris, including a concert hall during a performance by an American rock band.

Salah Abdeslam was believed to have rented a car in Belgium that was later found near the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people were massacred.

Another suspect, Mohamed Abrini, 30, was seen with Abdeslam at a gas station in Ressons, France, on the highway to Paris two days before the attacks, the Belgian prosecutor’s office said. Abrini was also being sought by European authorities. Europol, the E.U.’s law enforcement agency, described Abrini, a Belgian national of North African origin, as “armed and dangerous.”

Belgian authorities have arrested at least 10 people suspected of involvement with Abdeslam. However, Abdeslam himself had remained at large, and it was widely believed that he could have fled to Syria.

The Abdeslam brothers, the sons of Moroccan immigrants, were raised in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. Salah Abdeslam was unemployed and was known to hang around a local café owned by his brother, Café Les Beguines.

Salah Abdeslam was arrested in 2011 for breaking and entering. His co-defendant in the case was a childhood friend, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who would become the ringleader of the Paris attacks.

Abaaoud was killed five days after the attacks in a raid by French security forces on a hideout in a Paris suburb.

Another brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, told reporters after the Paris attacks that Salah Abdeslam was divorced from his wife and had no children. Friends and relatives expressed astonishment that he could have been involved in mass murder.

“Salah is a Muslim who prays, had in the last couple of months stopped smoking and drinking, and goes to the mosque once in a while,” Mohamed told the French channel BFMTV. “He dressed normally, didn’t show any signs of him being radicalized. It is a frustration that our family lived together without noticing what was going on.”

Law enforcement came close to apprehending Salah Abdeslam in the hours after the Paris attacks, when French police stopped a car he was riding in near the Belgian border. But the police allowed the car to proceed, and from then on, the search for his whereabouts was focused in Belgium.

The hunt had appeared to be intensifying in recent weeks. In January, Belgian police raided an apartment in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels and reported finding Abdeslam’s fingerprint. On Tuesday in Brussels, a joint French-Belgian police operation that authorities said was linked to the Paris investigation triggered clashes that left a suspect with possible Islamic State ties dead. Law enforcement identified the dead man as Mohamed Belkaid, a 35-year-old Algerian.

Abdeslam’s exact role in the plot remains unclear. More than a week after the killings, authorities found an explosives belt that had been discarded in a Paris trash can, triggering speculation that it had belonged to the 5-foot-7-inch Abdeslam.

More than four months after the attacks, which were believed to have been planned in Brussels, authorities have still not said exactly how many people may have been involved in the plot, or exactly how it originated.

The failure of Belgian authorities to notice the November terrorist attacks being plotted in their midst — followed by their failure to promptly apprehend Abdeslam — had turned into a political embarrassment among Belgium’s warring political factions. The country is crisscrossed by ethnic lines, where French-speaking, Dutch-speaking and German-speaking citizens live in an uneasy coexistence with each other. Brussels has six local police forces — not all of which speak the same language — as well as a federal police agency.

Belgium’s interior minister, Jan Jambon, who oversees intelligence services and counterterrorism, is a Flemish nationalist who has questioned whether Belgium in its current form should exist at all.

Jambon blamed the intelligence failures last year on incompetence among French-speaking parts of the police and local government. He vowed to “clean up” Molenbeek after the attacks — and on Friday, a top ally, the leader of the Flemish nationalist party and Antwerp Mayor Bart de Wever, said on Twitter that Jambon had “kept his word.”

Witte reported from London and Birnbaum from Moscow. William Branigin in Washington and Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany, contributed to this report.

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