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Tuesday , August 16 2022

Brothers, Belgium…1 on-the-run, arrests as France pursues probe

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People gather around the Monument a la Republique at the Place de la Republique in Paris,
People gather around the Monument a la Republique at the Place de la Republique in Paris,

PARIS, Nov 15, (AFP): Belgium issued an international arrest warrant Sunday for one of three brothers linked to the brutal attacks in Paris that killed 129 people, as the probe spread across Europe. As thousands gathered in central Paris in mourning and solidarity, authorities in at least five European countries scrambled to tie together leads and hunt down possible accomplices.

Security sources said one of the three brothers died in the Bataclan concert hall where the worst of the bloodshed took place, while another had been detained along with six other people in Belgium. Seven gunmen wearing suicide belts died during the attacks, which have been claimed by the Islamic State group — either at the Stade de France stadium, or in and around the Bataclan venue.

The sports minister said at least one of the bombers who detonated their explosives near the stadium had tried to enter the venue where France were playing Germany in an international football match at the time. Prosecutors say they believe three groups of attackers were involved in the Paris carnage, raising the possibility that one group may still be at large. It is now known that three of the suicide bombers were French nationals, but two of the men had lived in the Belgian capital Brussels.

Two cars used in the attacks were hired in Belgium. One was quickly found near the Bataclan venue, and one overnight on Saturday in the suburb of Montreuil east of Paris, with two AK47 rifles inside. Witnesses said the second car, a black Seat, was used by gunmen who shot dozens of people in bars and restaurants in the hip Canal St Martin area of Paris.

The first attacker to be named by investigators is Omar Ismail Mostefai, a 29-year-old father and French citizen, who was identified from a severed finger among the carnage at the Bataclan, where 89 people were killed after heavily armed men in wearing explosives vests stormed into the venue. French police, meanwhile, released a photograph of a suspect in the Paris attacks, naming him as 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is also under an international arrest warrant issued by Belgium.

Asking for any information leading to his capture, the alert said Abdeslam “may have been involved in the Paris attacks” and warned that he is considered a “dangerous individual”. Police detained six people close to Mostefai, including his father, brother and sister-in-law, judicial sources said. Born in the modest Paris suburb of Courcouronnes, he had eight convictions for petty crimes but had never served a prison sentence.

“It’s a crazy thing, it’s madness. Yesterday I was in Paris and I saw what a mess this was,” one of his brothers told AFP before he was taken into custody on Saturday night. Belgian prosecutors said two of the attackers were Frenchmen who had lived in Brussels, at least one in the neighbourhood of Molenbeek which has been linked to Islamic radicalism. Premier Charles Michel conceded Molenbeek, a poor immigrant neighbourhood known as a hotbed of radicalisation, was a “gigantic problem”.

Meanwhile, German authorities were questioning a man from Montenegro found last week with a car-load of eight Kalashnikov rifles, three pistols and explosives. The man, who had been heading for Paris, has refused to cooperate with police.

The discovery of a Syrian passport near the body of one attacker has raised fears that some of the assailants might have entered Europe as part of the huge influx of people fleeing Syria’s civil war. Greek and Serbian authorities have confirmed the passport belonged to a man who registered as a refugee in October on the island of Leros and applied for asylum in Serbia a few days later. But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has urged EU countries to take in refugees, said there was no need for a complete review of the bloc’s policies.

“Those who organised, who perpetrated the attacks are the very same people who the refugees are fleeing and not the opposite,” he said.

Paris was plunged into three days of mourning as residents struggled to come to terms with the latest shock, 10 months after jihadists hit satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket. Although much of the city was shut and the government had banned public demonstrations on security grounds, thousands flocked to lay flowers and lit candles at the sites of the violence. By early evening, the Place de la Republique square was full of people standing in quiet solidarity while many more joined a solemn memorial at Notre Dame cathedral.

Meanwhile, outside the Bataclan venue, 38-year-old Herve came to pay his respects with his six-year-old son. “We need to get out, you shouldn’t stay at home,” he told AFP. “You need to go out and look, get a feel for yourself of what happened.” The Islamic State group said they carried out the attacks that left a trail of destruction. The group said they were acting in revenge for French air strikes in Syria and threatened further violence in France “as long as it continues its Crusader campaign”. President Francois Hollande has called the assault an “act of war” and vowed to hit back “without mercy”. Forensic teams were still scouring the Bataclan venue, where three attackers burst in shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and sprayed gunfire during a gig by Californian band Eagles of Death Metal. They are believed to have executed hostages one by one after rounding them up near the stage.

Videos have shown terrified people scrambling out of a door and hanging out of windows to escape the violence. As armed police stormed the venue, two gunmen blew themselves up, while the third was shot by police. World leaders united Sunday to denounce terrorism at a heavily-guarded G20 summit in Turkey and observed a minute’s silence in respect of those who were killed. “We stand in solidarity with France in hunting down the perpetrators of this crime and bringing them to justice,” US President Barack Obama said after talks with his host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Russia’s Vladimir Putin said overcoming global terror was possible only “if all the international community unites its efforts”.

The suicide vests used Friday by attackers in Paris — a first in France — were made by a highly-skilled professional who could still be at large in Europe, intelligence and security experts say. All seven of the assailants who died in attacks wore identical explosive vests and did not hesitate to blow themselves up — a worrying change of tactic for jihadists targeting France. Unlike the attacks in London in 2005 where the bombers’ explosives were stored in backpacks, Friday’s assailants used the sort of suicide vests normally associated with bombings in the Middle East.

“Suicide vests require a munitions specialist. To make a reliable and effective explosive is not something anyone can do,” a former French intelligence chief told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity. “A munitions specialist is someone who is used to handling explosives, who knows how to make them, to arrange them in a way that the belt or vest is not so unwieldy that the person can’t move,” he added. “And it must also not blow up by accident.” But a key question about Friday is why the three attackers outside the Stade de France blew themselves up in neardeserted areas, killing only one person. “It makes no sense,” said a police source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you wanted to cause carnage, you act at the moment when spectators are entering or leaving the stadium.”

Only an hour earlier, a bombing could have caused dozens of fatalities and triggered a deadly stampede. The most likely explanation, said the ex-intelligence chief, is that the attacks were timed to coincide precisely with those in central Paris. “They were maybe not too smart and even though they weren’t in the right position, they blew themselves up at the agreed time,” he said. French authorities say the vests appeared to have been made with TATP, or acetone peroxide, that is easy for amateurs to make at home but is highly unstable. The vests also included a battery, a detonation button and shrapnel to maximise injuries. “They didn’t bring these vests from Syria: the more you shake these things, the more you multiply the risks,” he said. “It’s very likely he is here, in France or Europe, one guy, or several guys who have come back from jihadist areas and who learned over there.” Three specialists contacted by AFP agreed he was probably not among the attackers. “The explosive specialist is too precious. He never participates in attacks,” said Alain Chouet, a former director at France’s DGSE external intelligence agency. “So he’s around, somewhere.”

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