PARIS, Nov 16, (Agencies): Police raided homes of suspected Islamist militants across France overnight arresting 23 people, and investigators identified a Belgian national living in Syria as the possible mastermind behind Friday’s attacks in Paris. Much of France came to a standstill at midday for a minute’s silence to remember the 129 killed in the co-ordinated suicide bombings and shootings. Metro trains stopped, pedestrians paused on pavements and office workers stood at their desks.
Prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants — four Frenchmen and a foreigner fingerprinted in Greece last month. His role in the carnage has fuelled speculation that Islamic State took advantage of a recent wave of refugees fleeing Syria to slip militants into Europe. Police believe one attacker is on-the-run, and are working on the assumption that at least four people helped organise the mayhem, the worst atrocity in France since World War Two, which appears to have been organised in neighbouring Belgium. Belgian police arrested at least one person after a four-hour siege on Monday at a house in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, home to many Muslim immigrants, but failed to find a man believed to have played a key role in the assault. “We know that more attacks are being prepared, not just against France but also against other European countries,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told RTL radio. “We are going to live with this terrorist threat for a long time.” Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks in retaliation for French airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, warned in a video on Monday that any country hitting it would suffer the same fate, promising specifically to target Washington. French warplanes bombed Islamic State training camps and a suspected arms depot in its Syrian stronghold Raqqa late on Sunday — its biggest such strike since it started assaults as part of a US-led mission launched in 2014.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters police had arrested nearly two dozen people and seized arms, including a rocket launcher and automatic weapons, in 168 raids overnight. Another 104 people were put under house arrest, he said. “Let this be clear to everyone, this is just the beginning, these actions are going to continue,” Cazeneuve said. A source close to the investigation said Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, currently in Syria, was suspected of having ordered the Paris operation. “He appears to be the brains behind several planned attacks in Europe,” the source told Reuters.
RTL Radio said Abaaoud was a 27-year-old from Molenbeek. He was also reported by media to have been involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium which were foiled by the police last January. Police in Brussels have detained two suspects and are hunting Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old Frenchman based in the Belgian capital, who is one of three brothers believed to have been involved in the plot. Schools and museums in Paris re-opened on Monday after a 48- hour shutdown, but some popular tourist sites, including Disneyland and the Eiffel Tower, remained closed.
French tourism-related stocks fell sharply on fears visitors might shun Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world, but the country’s blue-chip CAC 40 index was steady, with no longterm economic impact seen. Police have named two French attackers — Ismael Omar Mostefai, 29, from Chartres, southwest of Paris, and Samy Amimour, 28, from the Paris suburb of Drancy. A source close to the investigation named two other French assailants as Bilal Hadfi and Ibrahim Abdeslam. A Turkish government official said Ankara had notified France twice in December 2014 and June 2015 about Mostefai, who entered Turkey in 2013 with no record of him leaving again.
France only called back about him after Friday’s events. “This is not a time to play the blame game, but we are compelled to share (this) information to shed light on (Mostefai’s) travel history,” the Turkish official said. France now believes Mostefai was in Syria from 2013-2014 and his radicalisation underlined the trouble France faces trying to capture an illusive enemy that grew up in its own cities. “He was a normal man,” said Christophe, his neighbour in Chartres. “Nothing made you think he would turn violent.” Latest official figures estimate that 520 French nationals are in the Syrian and Iraqi war zones, including 116 women. Some 137 have died in the fighting, 250 have returned home and around 700 have plans to travel to join the jihadist factions.
The man stopped in Greece in October was carrying a Syrian passport in the name of Ahmad Al Mohammad. Police said they were still checking to see if the document was authentic, but said the dead man’s fingerprints matched those on record in Greece. Greek officials said the passport holder had crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands last month and then registered for asylum in Serbia before heading north, following a route taken by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers this year.
The news revived a furious row within the European Union on how to handle the flood of Middle Eastern and African refugees. Senior Polish and Slovak officials dismissed an EU plan to relocate asylum seekers across the bloc, saying the violence underlined their concerns about taking in Muslims. Britain announced on Monday it would boost its intelligence agency staff by 15 percent and more than double spending on aviation security to defend against Islamist militants plotting attacks from Syria. A source in Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said police had foiled one attack in Britain last month.
Valls said the French authorities would use every means at their disposal to counter the Islamist threat, adding that mosques harbouring extremists would be shuttered and foreigners expelled if they “held unacceptable views against the republic”. France is home to some five million Muslims, many of them descendants from Algerian and Moroccan immigrants. Meanwhile, Islamic State warned in a new video on Monday that countries taking part in air strikes against Syria would suffer the same fate as France, and threatened to attack in Washington. The video, which appeared on a site used by Islamic State to post its messages, begins with news footage of the aftermath of Friday’s Paris shootings in which at least 129 people were killed.
The message to countries involved in what it called the “crusader campaign” was delivered by a man dressed in fatigues and a turban, and identified in subtitles as Al Ghareeb the Algerian. “We say to the states that take part in the crusader campaign that, by God, you will have a day, God willing, like France’s and by God, as we struck France in the centre of its abode in Paris, then we swear that we will strike America at its centre in Washington,” the man said. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the video, which purports to be the work of Islamic State fighters in the Iraqi province of Salahuddine, north of Baghdad. CIA Director John Brennan warned Monday that the attacks in Paris were likely not a “one off event” and that he expects the Islamic State group has more operations in the pipeline. “Security and intelligence services right now are working feverishly to see what else they can do in terms of uncovering it,” he said at a Washington think tank. The CIA chief said Friday night’s attacks by gunmen in suicide vests in the heart of the French capital were carefully planned and executed. “This was not something done in a matter of days.
This is something that was carefully and deliberately planned over the course of several months in terms of whether they had the operatives, the weapons, explosives, suicide belts. “I would anticipate that this is not the only operation ISIL has in the pipeline,” he said, using an alternate acronym for IS, the militant group that has seized large areas of Syria and Iraq. French President Francois Hollande called on the United States and Russia to join forces to destroy Islamic State in the wake of Friday’s attacks across Paris, and announced a wave of measures to combat terror in France.
In a sombre speech to both houses of parliament after the coordinated suicide bombings and shootings that killed 129, Hollande said he would increase funds for national security, strengthen anti-terror laws and boost border controls. “France is at war. But we’re not engaged in a war of civilisations, because these assassins do not represent any. We are in a war against jihadist terrorism which is threatening the whole world,” he told a packed chamber at the gilded Versailles Palace near Paris on Monday.
Hollande also called on his compatriots to be patient and allow the security agencies to handle the issue. Hollande said French forces would intensify its assaults and said he would meet US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming days to urge them to pool their resources. “…We must combine our forces to achieve a result that is already too late in coming,” Hollande said. President Obama on Monday conceded that the Paris terror attacks were a “terrible and sickening setback” in the fight against the Islamic State, but forcefully dismissed critics who have called for the US to change or expand its military campaign against the extremists. “The strategy that we are putting forward is the strategy that is ultimately is going to work,” Obama said during a news conference at the close of two days of talks with world leaders. “It’s going to take time.” The president grew irritated amid repeated questions about whether he had underestimated the strength of the Islamic State.