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Salah Abdeslam, Suspect in Paris Attacks, Is Captured in Brussels

A four-month search for the man believed to be the sole surviving participant in the Paris terrorist attacks came to an end on Friday when the police captured the suspect, Salah Abdeslam, after a gunfight in Brussels.

The arrest brought to a close what had been a frustrating hunt for Mr. Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-born French citizen of Moroccan ancestry who is thought to have driven the car that carried a team of terrorists to the French national soccer stadium outside Paris on Nov. 13. Mr. Abdeslam's brother Ibrahim blew himself up as a member of a separate team of attackers in Paris.

"This evening is a huge success in the battle against terrorism," Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium said at a news conference with President François Hollande of France, saying the arrest was the product of a joint operation.

Mr. Hollande said he would request the extradition of Mr. Abdeslam to face trial in France. "Although this arrest is an important step, it is not the final conclusion," he said, appearing alongside Mr. Michel after the two leaders received a congratulatory phone call from President Obama.

"We must catch all those who enabled, organized or facilitated these attacks, and we are realizing that they are much more numerous than we had originally thought and identified," Mr. Hollande said.

The Paris attacks, which killed 130 people and injured more than 400 others, were the deadliest terrorist violence in Western Europe since 2004. They were orchestrated by the Islamic State, and Mr. Hollande said the authorities would continue to pursue connections between the Paris attackers and other Islamic State militants.

Mr. Abdeslam was captured in Molenbeek, a neighborhood in Brussels popular with immigrants where he lived before the attacks. Belgian news organizations reported that he burst out of a house on the Rue des Quatre-Vents before he was shot in the leg and apprehended. A second man was arrested with him.

Some time later, a third man was captured, following further gunfire and explosions. The Belgian prosecutor said the police had also arrested members of a family suspected of having sheltered Mr. Abdeslam.

As the police operation unfolded, Molenbeek was packed with journalists and angry onlookers, who have protested what they consider unfair and heavy-handed interrogations by the police since the November attacks.

Some residents welcomed the capture.

Christophe Van Damme, a contractor who lives yards from where Mr. Abdeslam was apprehended, said heavily armed officers had jumped from vehicles pouring into the neighborhood late in the afternoon. He said he subsequently heard 10 to 15 gunshots.

"When everything was O.K., people were leaning out their windows, applauding the police," he said.

Mr. Abdeslam's capture could give the authorities an opportunity to interrogate him about how the attacks were planned and carried out and the Islamic State's ambitions for further terrorism in Europe.

Michel Eylenbosch, the chairman of the Molenbeek City Council, expressed relief at Mr. Abdeslam's arrest and said that there was "now the possibility to have big steps in this case."

The raid began shortly after Belgian authorities said they had found his fingerprints in an apartment searched on Tuesday in another Brussels neighborhood, Forest.

In that raid, a man Belgian prosecutors believed was an accomplice of Mr. Abdeslam — Mohamed Belkaid, 35 — was shot dead. But two men escaped from the apartment, one of whom appears to have been Mr. Abdeslam.

Eric Van der Sijpt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor in Brussels, said it was possible Mr. Abdeslam had spent "days, weeks or months," in the apartment.

Of the 10 men believed to have participated directly in the Paris attacks, Mr. Abdeslam was the only one who was at large. The rest died in the attacks or soon afterward.

Over the past four months, the French and Belgian police have raided dozens of buildings, scooped up troves of documents and questioned scores of suspects as part of their investigation into the attacks and Mr. Abdeslam's whereabouts.

The raid on Tuesday that yielded his fingerprints was not an attempt to capture Mr. Abdeslam. The authorities had targeted the home, on the Rue du Dries in the Forest section of Brussels, as part of an effort to collect additional intelligence.

The French and Belgian officers who conducted the raid on Tuesday were surprised to find it occupied. They immediately came under fire, and in the ensuing gunfight, Mr. Belkaid was killed. Four police officers were slightly wounded.

It was the second time the authorities had found Mr. Abdeslam's fingerprints in an apartment in Brussels; in December his prints were found in an apartment in the Schaerbeek section of Brussels, along with material that might have been used to make suicide belts.

The tantalizing, and frustrating, clues suggested that Mr. Abdeslam stayed in Brussels after the attacks, evidently with help from others.

Belgian prosecutors said on Friday that the Algerian man killed in the raid, Mr. Belkaid, was "most probably" a man who helped the Paris attackers. Mr. Belkaid had been using fake Belgian identity papers in the name Samir Bouzid.

A man traveling under that name had been previously identified as one of two men in a car with Mr. Abdeslam in September as the three drove between Hungary and Austria. After the attacks, someone using that name wired 750 euros, about $845, to the cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the on-the-ground organizer of the attacks. (Mr. Abaaoud and his cousin died in a police raid outside Paris on Nov. 18.)

In 2010, Salah Abdeslam served time in a Belgian prison with Mr. Abaaoud, who helped organize the attacks and who also lived in Molenbeek.

Salah Abdeslam had several brushes with the law, mainly for minor offenses. A week before the attacks, Belgian authorities shut down a bar and cafe that Ibrahim Abdeslam operated, because the two brothers were suspected of selling drugs.

In September, Salah Abdeslam drove to Budapest, where he picked up two men who returned with him to Belgium with fake identity cards.

The morning after the attacks, Mr. Abdeslam was stopped on a highway in the French town of Cambrai, near the Belgian border, but he was waved through.

There had been almost weekly reports by various French and Belgium media outlets — none confirmed by government authorities — of Mr. Abdeslam's whereabouts.

In December it was revealed that Mr. Abdeslam may have evaded the Belgian police two days after the attacks because of an arcane law that prevented law enforcement officers from raiding a private home after 9 p.m.

Last month his fiancée was quoted in the Belgium media saying that he would be killed before he would allow himself to be captured.

[Source: By Steven Erlanger and Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, Brussels, 18Mar16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 21Mar16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.