Heavily armed French SWAT teams foiled a terror cell planning fresh attacks on Paris during an hours-long battle that left at least two people dead.
Police squads fired 5,000 rounds in the raid targeting 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected planner of Friday’s atrocities in the city, but his fate remained unknown last night. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the operation had neutralised a “new terrorist threat” and that “everything led us to believe that, considering their armaments, the structured organisation and their determination, they were ready to act”.
He said the identities of the dead were still being investigated but that neither Abaoud nor the fugitive attacker Salah Abdeslam was in custody.
Mr Molins said: “At this time, I’m not in a position to give a precise and definitive number for the people who died, nor their identities, but there are at least two dead people.” He said the dead include a woman who exploded an explosives belt.
The police squads were at first thwarted by a reinforced door to the apartment in the Saint-Denis neighbourhood north of Paris and faced nearly incessant fire as they worked to enter.
The raid was launched after information from tapped telephone conversations, surveillance and witness accounts indicated that Abaaoud might be in a safe house in the suburb.
Investigators have identified Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the chief architect of Friday’s attacks, which killed 129 people and wounded 368 others.
Abaaoud is believed to be a key figure in an Islamic State (IS) external operations cell that US intelligence agencies have been tracking for months.
He is thought to have escaped to Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but has boasted in IS propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.
The raid came just over a mile from the Stade de France football stadium. Three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium during an international football match on Friday.
They were one of three teams of attackers who also targeted a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre as well as night spots in a trendy Paris area. IS has claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Mr Molins said yesterday’s operation began with a pre-dawn shoot-out and resulted in the arrest of eight people, including two found in the rubble and the man whose apartment was used as the cell’s hideaway.
Several police officers were injured and a SWAT team police dog was killed in the operation.
Neither Mr Molins nor French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve would say whether some attackers might still be on the loose. French authorities had previously said at least eight people were directly involved in the bloodshed: seven who died in the attacks and one, Salah Abdeslam, who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium.
A Spanish security official said French authorities have sent out a bulletin to police across Europe asking them to watch for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Abdeslam.
French officials have said they believe at least one other attacker was involved in Friday’s carnage and is still at large, taking the number to at least nine.
Speaking after yesterday’s raid, French President Francois Hollande called for a “large coalition” against IS militants to destroy a group that threatens the whole world and “commits massacres” in the Middle East.
France’s justice minister Christiane Taubir updated the overall number of wounded in the Paris attacks to 368 people, up from 352. The health minister said 195 people remained in hospital, 41 in intensive care and three in critical condition.
The Paris attacks have galvanised international determination to confront IS in Syria and Iraq, bringing France, Russia and the United States closer to an alliance.
Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday insisted that the UK would not need a United Nations mandate to extend air strikes on IS from Iraq into Syria.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced one of the Royal Navy’s most advanced warships is to support a French aircraft carrier as it deploys to the Gulf. Portsmouth-based HMS Defender will provide air cover for carrier Charles de Gaulle when it arrives to launch air attacks on the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.