The suspected mastermind of the attacks that killed 129 in Paris was among those killed in a police raid in a suburb of the French capital on Wednesday, the Paris prosecutor said in a statement on Thursday.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 28-year-old Belgian militant, who had boasted of mounting attacks in Europe for the Islamic State, was accused of orchestrating Friday’s coordinated bombings and shootings.
Police originally thought he was in Syria, but their investigations led them to a house in the Paris suburb of St. Denis and heavily armed officers stormed the building before dawn, triggering a massive firefight and multiple explosions.
“Abdel Hamid Abaaoud has just been formally identified, after comparing fingerprints, as having been killed during the (police) raid,” the statement said. “It was the body we had discovered in the building, riddled with bullets.”
Eight people were arrested at the apartment or nearby. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said that investigators could not identify three men detained in the raid on an apartment in St. Denis north of Paris.
A woman, believed to be Abaaoud’s cousin, blew herself up during the police assault. Gunfire and explosions rocked the Saint-Denis area in the north of the capital near the Stade de France stadium from before dawn as terrified residents were evacuated or told to stay in their homes. Five police officers were injured.
Police sources at the scene called the raid “well timed” because the suspects were “about to move on some kind of operation.”
Gunfire first rang out in the darkness at around 4:00 a.m. in the streets close to where three suicide bombers had detonated their explosives outside the stadium at the start of Friday’s attacks.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said telephone surveillance and witness reports “led us to believe” that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of Friday’s series of attacks in Paris that killed 129 people, had been in the apartment.
However, Molins added it was too early to say if he was among those arrested or killed. Authorities say they are using DNA technology to determine if Abaaoud was among those killed in today’s raids.
Abaaoud is an Islamic State fighter who was previously thought to be in Syria after fleeing raids in his native Belgium earlier this year.
Following the raid, France President Francois Hollande spoke before the congress of mayors, claiming “the anti-terrorist raid in Saint-Denis confirms that we are at war.” Hollande also said “The barbarians targeted France in its diversity (on Nov. 1). It’s the youth of France which was targeted because it simply embodies life.”
The raids also produced multiple cell phones that authorities believe belonged to the Paris attackers, and they hope the data recovered wil unmask the network responsible for the deadly attacks last week. One phone reportedly contained a message sent before the attacks, the gist of which was: OK, we’re ready.
French police are also analyzing a video that shows two gunmen and perhaps a third person inside a black SEAT automobile that has been tied to the attacks.
Police have been hunting for Abaaoud for months — he was sentenced in July to 20 years in prison in Brussels for recruiting Jihadists in Belgium (including his own 14-year old brother) to go to Syria; he’s also the alleged supervisor of the attempted attack against Belgian police stations in Verviers in January and is believed to be behind the aborted terror assault in the Thalys and Villejuif church earlier this year, according to Le Figaro.
Residents of the Paris suburb, some of whom were evacuated in their underwear, said they had been caught in a terrifying exchange of fire.
Hayat, 26, had been leaving a friend’s apartment where she had spent the night when the shots erupted.
“I heard gunfire,” she said. “I could have been hit by a bullet. I never thought terrorists could have hid here.”
The raid came after footage from the scene of one of Paris attacks revealed a ninth suspect may have taken part. It is known that seven were killed in the carnage on Friday, most after detonating suicide belts.
It was not clear if the ninth man was one of two suspected accomplices detained in Belgium or was still on the run, potentially with 26-year-old fugitive Frenchman Salah Abdeslam who took part in the attacks with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim.
Police also carried out multiple raids in southwest France. The operations were part of an anti-terrorism strategy but not directly linked to the Paris attacks, an investigator said.
French President Hollande was to hold discussions Wednesday on extending to three months the state of emergency declared after the worst attacks in French history. Lawmakers will vote on the proposal on Thursday and Friday.
As police stepped up the hunt for the fugitives, French and Russian jets pounded IS targets in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqa for a third consecutive day.
A monitoring group said the French and Russian air strikes had killed at least 33 IS jihadists in the last 72 hours.
France and Russia have vowed merciless retaliation for the Paris attacks and last month’s bombing of a Russian airliner over the Egyptian Sinai peninsula which killed 229 people and was also claimed by IS.
The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle steamed from the southern port of Toulon on Wednesday, heading for the eastern Mediterranean to participate in intensified airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that “it’s necessary to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies”.
The attacks have galvanised international resolve to destroy the jihadist group and end Syria’s more than four-year civil war, while potentially restoring ties between Russia and France that had collapsed since last year’s Ukraine crisis.
Hollande will meet Putin in Moscow on November 26, two days after seeing US President Barack Obama in Washington.
In a sign of the nervousness gripping Europe after Friday’s carnage, a football match between Germany and the Netherlands in Hanover was cancelled Tuesday and the crowd evacuated after police acted on a “serious” bomb threat.
The body representing Muslims in France said it would ask all 2,500 mosques in the country to condemn “all forms of violence or terrorism” in prayers this Friday.
The message will condemn such acts “unambiguously”, the French Muslim Council (CFCM) said.
France has invoked a previously unused European Union article to ask member states for help in its mission to fight back against the Islamic State organisation, which received unanimous backing from Brussels.
The alliance comes as international players meet to discuss ways of ending the Syrian war, which has spurred the rise of the Islamic State group, forced millions into exile and triggered Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
On a solidarity visit to Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “big transition” in Syria was probably only weeks away after Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia reached agreement at the weekend on a path towards elections.
Highlighting US fears over the attack, two Air France flights bound for Paris from the United States were diverted Tuesday and landed safely after anonymous threats that the carrier described as a “bomb scare”.