AFTER a four-month search for Europe’s most-wanted fugitive, Paris terror attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam was captured Friday, Belgian officials said.
Abdeslam was wounded in a gunbattle with authorities in an anti-terror raid in the Brussels’ suburb of Molenbeek. Four other people were arrested.
A man named Monir Ahmed Alaaj — also known as Amine Choukri — also was wounded and hospitalized, prosecutors said.
Belgian federal prosecutor’s office spokesman Eric Van der Sypt said the others detained included three members of a family who helped hide Abdeslam.
Earlier, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told reporters that Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French citizen, and another person were wounded in the raid. Abdeslam had a minor leg wound, Van der Sypt announced.
French President Francois Hollande said Paris prosecutors will urgently request the extradition of Abdeslam. Hollande told reporters he is confident Abdeslam will be sent to France for trial.
“I know the Belgian authorities will respond quickly and favorably to our request for extradition,” Hollande said.
Officials said as of Friday night no more suspects were in the building where the raid took place.
After the news broke, many others joined in with laudatory messages, including Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, where Abdeslam allegedly took part in the carnage that left 130 dead.
“Congratulations to the police on the arrest of Salah Abdeslam,” Hidalgo tweeted.
Lieve Reynebeau, who works on the street where Abdeslam was captured, said she heard loud noises and then looked out to see police all around the scene. She managed to leave the area like others — “all of us safe” — by foot.
Armed and heavily protected police, with helmets and shields, converged on the area. Three explosions were heard there later Friday, CNN French affiliate BFMTV reported, though it wasn’t clear if those were controlled blasts or part of a continuing operation.
And gunshots rang out shortly after 7 p.m. in the same area.
Police continued to conduct operations in Molenbeek into Saturday morning.
Molenbeek, an impoverished Brussels suburb, has a reputation as a hotbed for jihadism. Several members of its large, predominantly Muslim population — many of whom are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa — have been linked to terror plots and attacks.
Last fall, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens cited Molenbeek as a place where more needs to be done to address what he called Belgium’s “foreign fighter problem.”
And in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, authorities conducted raids there and detained numerous individuals. One was Mohammed Abdeslam, the brother of the wanted man captured Friday, who was taken into custody and later released.
Mohammed Abdeslam told Belgian state broadcaster RTBF that he thinks Salah at the “last minute … decided to reconsider” carrying out an attack himself November 13 — ones that ended, in the other cases, with the assailants dead.
One of those who did follow through was another brother, Ibrahim Abdeslam, the suicide bomber who detonated explosives outside a cafe on Paris’ Boulevard Voltaire.
Earlier Friday, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office revealed that the 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam’s fingerprints and DNA were found in a Brussels apartment raided three days earlier. One person was killed and two people escaped that operation, according to authorities.
The man killed by a special forces sniper was Mohamed Belkaid, an Algerian who used the name Samir Bouzid, and who is believed to have directed the Paris attackers via calls from Belgium, according to the prosecutor’s office.
Belkaid is believed to have helped Abdeslam travel prior to the attacks and transferred money to a female cousin of Paris ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud following the attack, the Belgian senior counter-terrorism official told CNN in January.
Authorities believe Abdeslam was using the apartment as a hideout following the Paris attacks, according to the Belgian counter-terrorism official.
His possible escape spurred an intense manhunt in a country already on guard after last fall’s attacks in the French capital.
Van der Sypt noted earlier this week — prior to Friday’s raid — that authorities had searched more than 100 houses and arrested 58 people as part of the post-Paris probe. Another 23 people have been arrested “in linked investigations,” he said then.
Investigators think Salah Abdeslam may have been the driver of a black Renault Clio that dropped off three suicide bombers near the Stade de France, one of the attack sites near Paris. They also believe he had worn a suicide belt found on a Paris street after the attacks.
He is believed to have called friends to take him to Belgium after the attacks. They passed through police checkpoints, but Abdeslam had not yet been identified as a suspect and they were allowed to continue on their way.
Surveillance video emerged of him and another man at a gas station near the Belgian border the day after the attacks.
He has eluded authorities ever since. – CNN
In January, authorities found traces of explosives and Abdeslam’s fingerprints in another Brussels apartment.
Some theories suggested he had returned to Syria following the attacks.