Paris attacks mastermind captured in Brussels shootout
A witness to the raid that captured Europe's No 1 fugitive described hearing gunshots and police repeatedly shouting over a loudspeaker to suspects holed up inside a Belgian apartment building.
Fatiha Hrika was a 39-year-old child care worker who lived a few doors down from where the raid targeting Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam took place in Brussels on Friday morning (Saturday NZT).
She said they sealed off the street and the neighbourhood. Then police with a loudspeaker began shouting: "Rue des Quatre Vents, number 79, come out with your hands up!"
After shots were fired, she said, "they piled in. We heard noises all around. And that's when they pulled out the Salah (guy.) They put him to the ground."
Hrika described seeing him being put into an ambulance followed by a SWAT team.
Abdeslam, 26, was arrested after a shootout with police in Brussels on Friday, Belgium's prime minister said.
Charles Michel described the capture of Abdeslam and two others as "a very important result in the battle for democracy".
French President Francois Hollande said he was confident they had links to Syria and to Islamic State which claimed the attacks that killed 130 people.
"The threat level is very high," said Hollande, who was in Brussels for an EU summit. He added that it was now clear many more people had been involved in the Paris attacks on a sports stadium, bars and cafes and concert hall than had been realised.
Michel said Abdeslam was wounded - local media said he was shot in the leg - in the operation launched as EU leaders met on the other side of the city to discuss Europe's migration crisis. USPresident Barack Obama sent his congratulations.
Television footage showed armed security forces dragging a man with a sack on his head out of a building and into a car.
"We got him," Belgian government minister Theo Francken said on Twitter.
Hollande said France wanted to extradite Abdeslam, who was born and raised in Brussels to a Moroccan immigrant family, and hoped he would yield more clarity about an operation mounted by Syria-based Islamic State in which all the known attackers died.
Several bursts of gunfire rang out earlier in the capital's Molenbeek area - Abdeslam's home neighbourhood and the scene of past investigations into the Paris attacks - and police officers surrounded an apartment block there from around 4pm (4am Saturday NZT).
Two explosions were heard after the arrest, though it was unclear whether they were part of a new operation or the clear-up.
Some four hours later, the main police presence had stood down but crime scene investigators were still at work.
There had long been speculation about whether Abdeslam had stayed in Belgium or managed to flee to Syria. Security services will be seeking information from Abdeslam on Islamic State plans and structures, his contacts in Europe and Syria and support networks and finance.
Hollande said he was sure Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up at a Parisian cafe on November 13, had also been in the city that night and had helped plan the attack.
A lawyer for several survivors and relatives of victims of the Paris attacks echoed Hollande's call.
Samia Maktouf said Abdeslam committed his alleged crimes on French soil and must answer for his role in the November 13 attacks.
She said extradition would depend on Abdeslam's condition, after he was wounded in the leg during the police operation, but expressed hope it would happen soon.
Clients were relieved by Abdeslam's arrest, but it was a relief mingled with bitterness, Maktouf said.
Belgian police had found fingerprints belonging to Abdeslam at the scene of an apartment raided on Tuesday, prosecutors said earlier.
The Belgian federal prosecutor's office also said an Algerian killed during that earlier operation was probably one of the people French and Belgian investigators were seeking in relation to the Islamic State attacks in Paris on November 13.
Public broadcaster RTBF said it had information that Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up in Paris, was "more than likely" one of two men who police have said evaded capture at the scene before a sniper shot dead 35-year-old Mohamed Belkaid as he aimed a Kalashnikov.
A man named Samir Bouzid has been sought since December when police issued CCTV pictures of him wiring cash from Brussels, two days after the Paris attacks, to a woman who was then killed in a shootout with police in the Paris suburb of St Denis.
She was a cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who had fought in Syria and is suspected of being a prime organiser of the attacks in which 130 people were killed. Both died in the apartment in St Denis on November 18.
France's BFM television said the fingerprints were found on a glass in the apartment, where four police officers, including a Frenchwoman, were wounded when a hail of automatic gunfire hit them through the front door as they arrived for what officials said they had expected to be a relatively routine search.
Abdeslam's elder brother was among the suicide bombers who killed themselves in Paris. The younger Abdeslam was driven back to Brussels from Paris hours later.
Belgian authorities are holding 10 people suspected of involvement with him, but there had been no report of the fugitive himself being sighted.
There has long been speculation in Belgium that he could have fled to Syria.
Investigators believe much of the planning and preparation for the November bombing and shooting rampage in Paris was conducted in Brussels by young French and Belgian nationals, some of whom fought in Syria for Islamic State.
The attack strained relations between Brussels and Paris, with French officials suggesting Belgium was lax in monitoring the activities of hundreds of militants returned from Syria.
Brussels, headquarters of the European Union as well as Western military alliance NATO, was entirely locked down for days after the Paris attacks for fear of a major incident there.
Brussels has maintained a high state of security alert since then, with military patrols a regular sight.
- Reuters with AP