BRUSSELS, March 18, (Agencies): Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel confirmed three suspects had been detained on Friday following a police raid the Molenbeek district of Brussels, including the most wanted fugitive Salah Abdeslam following the Paris attacks in November. He was speaking in a joint news conference with French President Francois Hollande. “It’s a very important result in the battle for democracy, for the values that we want to embody against this abominable form of obscurantism,” Michel said.
Meanwhile, Hollande said he expected the extradition of Abdeslam “as quickly as possible”. Hollande also said he would call a meeting of France’s security council on Saturday after Abdeslam and two other suspects were arrested in a police raid in Brussels.
Top Paris attacks suspect Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, was wounded and captured in a raid by armed police in Brussels on Friday after four months on the run. Abdeslam, 26, who is believed to have played a key logistical role in the Nov 13 attacks claimed by the Islamic State group that left 130 people dead, sustained a leg injury in the raid, French police said. “We got him,” said Belgium’s Immigration Minister Theo Francken.
The Franco-Moroccan is believed to be the last surviving member of the 10-strong commando team that carried out the worst ever terror attack on French soil. He is thought to have fled to Brussels the day after the gun and bombing rampage on Paris nightspots after refusing to blow himself up.
His capture came just a day after his brother Brahim, who blew himself up in the massacre, was buried in a discreet ceremony on Thursday in Brussels.
A witness told AFP the operation began at around 1530 GMT when dozens of police cars swooped into the gritty Molenbeek neighbourhood of the Belgian capital. “I heard about three or four shots fired, but they were muffled as if taking place indoors,” said Karim, an Oxfam charity employee who lives in the largely Molenbeek.
The arrest came hours after prosecutors revealed that Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in an apartment in another part of Brussels following a raid earlier this week in which a suspected IS militant was killed. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel held a crisis meeting after the arrest with French President Francois Hollande, who was in Brussels for a European Union summit.
Belgium has been at the centre of the investigation into the Paris attacks almost from day one, and has come under fire for alleged blunders that let the perpetrators slip under the radar. Abdeslam fled to Brussels after the attacks and is believed to have holed up in a flat for at least three weeks evading detection by the Belgian police.
He slipped past three police checks in France as he fled to Belgium just hours after the terror assaults, a source close to the probe said in December. Investigators believe Abdeslam hired one of the cars used in the attacks and then used it to drive suicide bombers to the Stade de France with the task to then blow himself up.
But he apparently backed out, and an explosives-filled suicide vest was later found in Paris in a region that mobile phone signals indicated he had been in. Police believe he fled across the border the next morning. Several people have been arrested on suspicion of helping him.
The ringleader of the attacks, IS member Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was also from Brussels. He was killed in a raid in Paris in November. Another of the Paris attackers, Bilal Hadfi, was last week buried quietly in the same cemetery as Abdeslam’s brother. Both had links to Molenbeek, a largely immigrant district which has been a hotbed of Islamist violence for decades. Abdeslam and his brother had run a bar in the area until it was shut down by the authorities a few weeks before the Paris attacks.
Earlier this week, Belgian and French police raided an apartment in the Forest district of Brussels, shooting dead a 35-year-old Algerian identified as Mohamed Belkaid, who was living illegally in Belgium. Police found a Kalashnikov assault rifle, extremist Islamic literature and an IS flag near Belkaid after he was shot. He was reportedly on a list of IS fighters leaked last week as a volunteer to commit a suicide bomb attack.
Prosecutors then announced on Friday that Abdeslam’s fingerprints had been found in the Forest apartment. Another Abdeslam fingerprint was found in December in a different Brussels apartment, where investigators believe the fugitive hid for three weeks immediately following the attacks.
Prosecutors also said that the man killed in the Forest shootout was very likely a suspect wanted by police in connection with the Paris attacks. Investigations show that “the so-called Samir Bouzir, against whom a wanted notice was issued, most probably is the Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid” killed Tuesday, a statement said. Authorities in December determined that a fake identity card in Bouzir’s name was used to wire 750 euros ($800) from a Brussels Western Union office to the cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud four days after the massacre in the French capital.