The hunt for the perpetrators of the massacre in Paris reached a bloody climax Wednesday as French police and special forces raided a suburban apartment believed to be housing top Islamic State jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Two people were confirmed killed in the strike at Saint Denis, one a woman who detonated her suicide vest soon after the raid began at 4.40 am, the second a man shot dead at close range.
French authorities declined to confirm the identities of those killed and arrested, saying that further investigation was needed.
“It is currently impossible to give you the identities of the people who were arrested, which are being verified,” French prosecutor Francois Molins said.
There was also no official confirmation of the numbers killed. “There were at least two dead, may be more,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
Though confirmation on the identities of the slain individuals was unavailable, Paris police sources said there was a high probability that the man killed in the apartment was Abaaoud, a Belgian-born Islamic State jihadist alleged to be responsible for a string of recent operations in Europe.
(In New Delhi, French Ambassador to India François Richier said Abaaoud may have committed suicide during the raid. “According to information I have, yes he committed suicide during the operation,” PTI quoted Richier as telling NDTV.)
Saint Denis residents were removed from their homes, some in their underwear, just before the raid began. “It was terrifying,” said Om Prakash, a one-time Delhi resident living in a block of flats just 100 metres from the apartment. “There were at least eight loud explosions, and then gunfire.”
“This kind of thing is supposed to happen in Karachi or Kabul, not Paris,” said Om Prakash who designs wood panelling for restaurants in the city.
Police said six people had been arrested during the raid, which targeted the apartment in which Abaaoud was reported to be staying, as well as a nearby flat. Those arrested included two unidentified individuals trying to hide in the rubble, a man who had provided shelter to terrorists and an acquaintance.
The landlord who rented out the apartment was also arrested, police said. “A friend asked me to put up two of his friends; I did not question it,” he said to the media as police were taking him away. “I am learning everything at the same time as you.”
Five police officers were slightly injured in the raid, police said.
Abaaoud is related to Salah Abdeslam, the fugitive alleged to have transported the attackers to their target, including his brother, Ibrahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up at a bar on Rue Voltaire.
DNA tests and further questioning will be needed to establish the identities of those killed at Saint Denis, the sources said.
European intelligence services have been under fire for not locating Abaaoud earlier, despite evidence he was planning a major strike. In August, French jihadist Reda Hame named Abaaoud as his sponsor for staging an attack on a concert hall, when he was arrested on his return home after spending a week training with the Islamic State in Raqqa.
Hame told investigators: “I can tell you that this will happen very soon. There, it was a real factory, and they really try to hit France and Europe.”
Abaaoud, police sources said, is thought to have inspired an abortive attempt by Belgian jihadist Sid Ahmed Ghlam to open fire on a congregation at the Villejuif church on April 19. In addition, Abaaoud allegedly mentored Ayoub El-Khazzani, who is charged with attempting to shoot passengers on a high-speed train from Belgium to France on August 11.
He is also said to have been in touch with Mehdi Nemmouche who assassinated the head of Belgium’s Jewish history museum last year.
European police forces first learned of Abaaoud’s European network in January when Belgian police raided a jihadist cell in the city of Verviers, near the border with Germany. Two jihadists, who allegedly planned to kidnap and kill a top law enforcement official, were killed.
Following the raid, Abaaoud escaped back to Syria. In an interview to the Islamic State magazine Dabiq, he bragged that “my name and picture were all over the news, yet I was able to stay in their homeland, plan operations against them, and leave safely when doing so became necessary”.
Though Belgian police reported that Abaaoud had returned earlier this year, following inputs provided by Austrian police, authorities in Belgium failed to locate him. France believed he remained in Syria — and, earlier this week, it attacked Islamic State facilities to which he is believed to have been connected.
Holger Muench, chief of Germany’s law enforcement agency, warned Wednesday that police forces across the region were being overwhelmed by the sheer number of returned jihadists they needed to monitor. There were, he said, over 750 Germans who had travelled to the Islamic State — a figure almost twice estimated earlier — of whom a third had returned.
“The higher the number of people, the harder it is for police to keep in check potential perpetrators and prevent crimes,” Muench said.
4.40 pm: It is impossible to give the identities of those killed and arrested at the moment as we are performing background checks, said a French official.
4.15 pm: French police source told AFP that seven people were arrested in total post-Paris attacks.
— FRANCE 24 English (@France24_en) November 18, 2015
4.10 pm: CNN America reporting that French police are now attempting to enter a church in Saint-Denis.
#BREAKING Paris raid over, area still being secured: police source
— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) November 18, 2015
3.34 pm: A man arrested during a police assault on the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis said he had lent his apartment to two people from Belgium as a favour to a friend.
“A friend asked me to put up two of his friends for a few days,” the man said.
3.30 pm: Meanwhile, French and Russian air strikes in northern Syria have killed at least 33 jihadists with the Islamic State group in the last 72 hours, a monitoring group said today. Dozens of IS fighters were also wounded in the raids on weapons depots, barracks and checkpoints in the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital of Raqa, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.