Police raid in search of Paris attackers triggers intense firefight

French soldiers and police during Wednesday’s raid in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
French soldiers and police during Wednesday’s raid in Saint-Denis, near Paris. AP

By the time the siege on an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis was over and eight terror suspects had been arrested and at least two killed, French police had fired more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins, speaking at a news conference Wednesday, said that the fight to capture those involved in Friday’s terror attacks in Paris was so intense that he couldn’t confirm news reports claiming the suspected mastermind of that mayhem, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, had been killed in the raid.

“What’s left of the bodies will still demand some study,” he said.

He said he wasn’t even able to confirm that a suspect who detonated a suicide belt during the raid was a woman, as was widely reported. He said the suspect’s sex had not been determined.

What was certain, Molins said, was that the attackers had been well prepared for their murderous work, and when the raid came, they appeared to be close to continuing that work. Investigators found hundreds of rounds of ammunition still unused when they finally overcame the suspects’ fire.

That discovery, Molins said, reminded investigators of the unused ammunition that police had found on Friday when they finally gained entry to the Bataclan theater, where 89 people lost their lives. The killers had enough ammunition on hand to kill many more, Molins said.

Five days after Friday night’s attacks, which killed at least 129 and wounded 352, the events of Wednesday made clear that even greater mayhem had been planned and that the terrorist cell was much larger than the eight suspects police had thought. Seven of those suspects died or killed themselves Friday night.

Police used a cellphone and the navigation systems of cars linked to Friday night’s attacks to determine where terrorist cell could be located.

Three police officers were injured during the raid, as was one area resident who got caught in the crossfire. A police dog was killed.

Beyond bullets, and weapons, the attackers used cellphones to stay in contact, Molins said. Finding one in a public trash can outside the Bataclan had been central to tracking the terror cell to the apartment in Saint-Denis, he said. Investigators were able to determine where the holder of that phone had been and with whom he’d been in contact. The last text message before it was discarded had come at 9:42 p.m. Friday, when the attack on the Bataclan began. “We begin,” it said.

That was not the only benefit the police found in the high-tech gadgetry so common today. The three cars linked to the attacks, all of which were rented by suspected terrorist brothers Brahim and Salah Abdeslam, were equipped with satellite navigation systems that police used to determine where the killers had been before the attacks.

That information brought investigators, according to French media, to rooms 311 and 312 in a hotel in Alforttville, a suburb about four miles southeast of central Paris. There, police found the needles the attackers had used to inject themselves with the amphetamine Captagon. The drug, police believe, helped the killers remain calm enough to complete their bloody rampages.

The navigation systems, and the phones, also brought investigators to the address in Saint-Denis.

The clues also convinced police that reputed mastermind Abaaoud was not in Syria, as they had originally suspected, but in the apartment in Saint-Denis. They went to get him.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the alleged mastermind of the attack, was thought to be in Syria. Investigators became convinced he was actually in France.

The terrorist cell was prepared. Molins said the apartment’s front door had been armored.

The fight, which began at 4:20 a.m., was fierce. In addition to 5,000 rounds of ammunition from assault and sniper rifles, anti-terrorism police and army troops tossed in what Molins called “offensive grenades.” The suspects returned fire at an almost equal rate. Eventually, the floor of the third story apartment collapsed.

When police entered, they found three men under the rubble. Molins said they heard an explosion and realized it had been “a kamikaze attack from under the rubble.” That attack was believed to have been carried out by a woman.

“The building may collapse,” he said. “We had to shore up the walls to continue the investigation.”

He did say that neither Abaaoud nor Salah were among the arrested. He pointedly did not rule out that Abaaoud may have been killed.

As for Salah, the multi-country manhunt for him continues, with reports coming out of both Belgium and Spain that he had been sighted.

Belgian news media reported that the Abdeslam brothers had been interrogated in early 2015 by Belgian police. The reports, confirmed Wednesday by a Belgian state prosecutor, indicate that police found no evidence that they were a threat and released them.

The prosecutor noted that Brahim Abdeslam had tried to go to Syria through Turkey in January, but only got as far as Turkey. Turkish police stopped him at that point and sent him back in February 2015.

And in an unrelated terrorism story out of Turkey today, authorities were claiming to have arrested eight Moroccans who’d arrived in the coastal resort region of Turkey with false identities and false itineraries. French media reports indicate that Turkish police believe they were planning on joining the flow of Syrian refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece, then on by land to Germany, where they were intending to carry out attacks.

Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews

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