BRUSSELS (AP) – After an intense four-month manhunt, police on Friday captured the top fugitive in last year’s deadly Paris attacks in the same Brussels neighborhood where he grew up.
Salah Abdeslam, 26, is a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader of the attacks and is suspected of driving a car carrying a group of gunmen who took part in the shootings.
He and two other suspects were detained in a raid in Molenbeek. Abdeslam was shot in the leg, officials said.
Helmeted police with riot shields cordoned off the area, and two explosions were heard.
France’s BFM television broadcast images of police tugging a man with a white hooded sweatshirt toward a police car, as he dragged his left leg as if it were injured.
The Islamic extremist attackers killed 130 people at a rock concert, the national stadium and cafes on Nov. 13 in Paris, in the country’s deadliest attacks in decades.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called Friday’s arrests a success in the “fight against terrorism.” He said he spoke to President Barack Obama about the arrest, and the White House said U.S. officials have been in close touch with French and Belgian officials about the investigation into the Paris attacks.
French President Francois Hollande congratulated the Belgian government for an operation that lasted several weeks. He warned that the investigation is not over and said authorities would continue to pursue anyone involved in financing or organizing the attacks.
Two other people believed linked to the attacks were still being sought, including fellow Molenbeek resident Mohamed Abrini and a man known under the alias of Soufiane Kayal.
Friday’s capture of Abdeslam came after Belgian authorities said they found his fingerprints in an apartment raided earlier this week in another Brussels neighborhood.
In that raid, a man believed to have been an accomplice of Abdeslam – Mohamed Belkaid – was shot dead, Belgian prosecutors said. But two men escaped from the apartment, one of whom appears to have been Abdeslam.
Federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said it was possible Abdeslam had spent “days, weeks or months,” in the apartment.
Most of the Paris attackers died on the night of the attacks, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up. Brahim Abdeslam was buried in the area Thursday.
Abdeslam slipped through a police dragnet to return to Brussels after the bloodbath in Paris, and though the target of an international manhunt, had not been found.
At one point during Friday’s police operation, a phalanx of officers in camouflage, masks and riot helmets marched through the neighborhood with guns and automatic weapons drawn, escorting people out of buildings.
Abdeslam’s exact role in the attacks is not clear. The car he drove was abandoned in northern Paris, and his mobile phone and an explosive vest he had apparently used were later found in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission, either ditching a malfunctioning vest – or fleeing in fear.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which Belgian nationals played key roles.
On Tuesday, a joint team of Belgian and French police showed up to search a residence in the Forest area of Brussels in connection with the Paris investigation. They were unexpectedly fired upon by at least two people inside. Four officers were slightly wounded.
An occupant of the residence was shot dead by a police sniper as he prepared to open fire on police from a window. Police identified him as Belkaid, 35, an Algerian national living illegally in Belgium.
A Kalashnikov assault rifle was found by his body, as well as a book on Salafism, an ultraconservative strain of Islam. Elsewhere in the apartment, police found an Islamic State banner as well as 11 Kalashnikov loaders and a large quantity of ammunition, the prosecutor said.
Belgian authorities initially said Belkaid had no known background in radical Islamic activities. But Friday afternoon, prosecutors issued a statement saying he was “most probably” an accomplice of Abdeslam who had been using a fake Belgian ID card in the name of Samir Bouzid.
A man using that ID card was one of the two men seen with Abdeslam in a rental car on the Hungarian-Austrian border in September.
Four days after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the same false ID card was used to transfer 750 euros ($847) to Hasna Ait Boulahcen, niece of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader. Both Ait Boulahcen and Abaaoud died afterward in a police siege.
In January, Belgian authorities said one of Abdeslam’s fingerprints was found alongside homemade suicide bomb belts at an apartment in another area of Brussels. Belgian prosecutors said it wasn’t known whether he had been at the address in the Schaerbeek district before or after the Paris attacks, or how long he had spent there.
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