French Police Unsure Of Attack Mastermind's Status After Deadly Raid

At least two suspects are dead after a siege that focused on Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks.

18/11/2015 4:14 PM AEDT | Updated 19/11/2015 7:29 AM AEDT
  • At least two were killed and eight arrested after a police raid in Saint-Denis early Wednesday.
  • Abdelhamid Abaaoud and Salah Abdeslam, two men involved in Friday's attacks, were not among those arrested. 
  • Abaaoud, a member of the Islamic State, has been involved in previous attacks in Europe. Abdeslam, whom authorities lost track of early Saturday, is one of the supposed attackers in Friday's plot.
  • Friday's attacks took place at various locations across Paris, including near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, killing at least 129.

At least two suspects linked to last week's Paris terror attacks died and eight others were taken into custody early Wednesday morning during a police raid on two apartments in the suburb of Saint-Denis.

Multiple suspects linked to the Paris attacks were believed to be holed up in one of the apartments, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind. Authorities identified Abaaoud from witness accounts and surveillance including phone tapping, Paris Prosecutor François Molins said Wednesday. Police carried out the raid after receiving witness testimony that the suspect was in France. Authorities had previously been aware that he had inspired various attacks across Europe as a member of the Islamic State.

Salah Abdeslam, whom authorities have been hunting for since Saturday, was also believed to be in the apartment. 

Neither Abaaoud nor Abdeslam were arrested during Wednesday's raid, Molins said at a press conference later in the day. 

The prosecutor was able to confirm that at least two suspects were killed in the raid.

"The investigation is extremely delicate," Molins said. "I can't give a definitive number of deceased." 

It's unclear whether the two deceased are Abaaoud and Abdeslam. French President François Hollande confirmed that the two who were killed had connections to the attacks that swept Paris Friday night and killed at least 129 people. 

Molins said authorities believe a woman blew herself up over the course of the raid, but are still in the process of verifying this.

Inside the apartment, police discovered and arrested two men, one of whom was injured, according to Molins. They also arrested four suspects outside the building. In a simultaneous raid on a second apartment, police arrested a man and his wife. The man was suspected of having rented the first apartment to the terrorists.

Authorities are still identifying those who were arrested. Bank and phone records led authorities to the two apartments Tuesday night. 

Five police officers were injured in the raid, Molins said at the conference Wednesday. Approximately fifty officers in total were deployed. In addition, Diesel, a 7-year-old police dog, was killed

Meanwhile, throughout France, authorities conducted 118 more searches overnight, arresting 25 people and seizing 34 weapons, France’s Interior Ministry confirmed. That brings the total number searches to 414 and number of arrests to 60 over the past three nights. 

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said early on Wednesday that "this morning's actions were conducted against people who could have attacked again." The raid stopped a jihadist cell from planning an attack on Paris's business district, La Défense, two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters, and on Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, police sources told France 2

Starting around 4:30 a.m, local police, backed by the French National Police RAID Team, exchanged gunfire with the suspected terrorists, with police firing over 5,000 rounds, Molins said at Wednesday's press conference. The confrontation involved grenades, explosives and sniper shots, and was so violent that the building's ceiling collapsed. The entire building is at risk of collapsing, making the investigation more difficult, the prosecutor said.

The Associated Press counted at least seven explosions heard during the standoff. Troops were deployed to keep back crowds gathered in the area.

A resident of the apartment that police raided in search of the suspects described the experience to the French television station iTélé.

"I huddled close to the ground with my baby, we saw bullets, light and lasers coming towards us," said the woman, who wanted to be identified only as Sabrine. "There were real explosions. We could feel the walls shaking."

At one point, Sabrine screamed for help because she feared for her baby.

"Thankfully, [the police evacuated us] because I have heart problems and I thought I was going to die," she told BFMTV.

Sabrine said she didn't think anyone lived in the apartment that was raided. "[The suspects'] apartment was disgusting and uninhabitable," she noted. 

Militant Photo via AP
This undated image, made available in the Islamic State's English-language magazine Dabiq, shows Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

Abaaoud, 28, is a known terrorist who has been on Western radars for years. He is a radicalized Belgian and alleged Islamic State recruiter who was, until shortly before the raid, believed to be in Syria.

Just last month, he was the target of airstrikes against the Islamic State, The New York Times reported. When his family was told mistakenly last year that he had been killed, they "rejoiced," according to the Times.

Salah Abdeslam is the brother of Brahim Abdeslam, who died in a suicide attack last Friday at the Boulevard Voltaire. The brothers are from Molenbeek, a poor immigrant neighborhood of Belgium now known to be a hotbed for terrorism. Both men were questioned earlier this year, but not detained because they weren't considered a threat.

After the chaos of Friday's attacks, border police let Salah, the most wanted man in Europe, cross into Belgium in a car with two other men because authorities hadn't yet determined he was a suspect, Molins confirmed.

French police began hunting on Tuesday for a second suspected terrorist believed to have escaped after last week's massacres. A Belgian news outlet later identified that suspect as Mohamed K.  

French National Police

School in Saint-Denis was canceled for Wednesday, the mayor, Didier Paillard, announced. Transportation to the northern Paris suburb was also halted. 

Stade de France, the national stadium that attackers tried to bomb during a soccer game on Friday, is located in Saint-Denis, less than two miles from the apartment that the raid targeted. 

Meanwhile, France and Russia unleashed a new wave of airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria, while fears of further terror attacks deepened in Paris and beyond.

On Tuesday, the Eiffel Tower closed to the public just a day after it had reopened, while a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands was canceled due to a bomb threat 90 minutes before kickoff. 

Earlier on Tuesday, two Paris-bound Air France flights from the U.S. were diverted due to anonymous telephone bomb threats. A flight from Washington, D.C., made an emergency landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a flight from Los Angeles was diverted to Salt Lake City. Passengers deplaned safely. 

Islamic State militants have claimed responsibility for the attacks that targeted the Stade de France, a packed concert hall and popular restaurants and cafes in one of Paris' trendiest neighborhoods.

French authorities have said that at least nine people were directly involved in the bloodshed Friday: seven who died in the attacks, Salah Abdeslam, who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium, and Mohamed K. However, there have been gaps in officials' public statements, which have never fully disclosed how many attackers took part in the deadly rampage.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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