A sudden burst of gunfire at 4:25am in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis marked the start of a major police operation to try to capture the mastermind behind last Friday’s Paris terrorist attacks.
Under cover of darkness, dozens of French SWAT teams had moved into place to block off the area around the historic Rue du Cornillon. Their target was an apartment linked to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent believed to be the chief architect responsible for the co-ordinated attacks that killed 129 people and wounded hundreds more.
Intelligence gathered from tapped telephone conversations, surveillance and witness accounts indicated that Abaaoud, previously thought to be in Syria, was holed up in the safe house in Saint-Denis.
As sleeping residents were jolted awake by gunshots, it felt as if their culturally diverse community was coming under attack.
The authorities in Saint-Denis warned residents to stay inside but official information was scarce.
Outside, about a mile from the Stade de France, one of the largest-scale police operations seen in Paris began to unfold.
According to early reports from French officials, Abaaoud had barricaded himself into the flat with at least five heavily armed accomplices.
In the initial offensive, at around 5am, a large explosion was heard before armed police stormed the apartment building.
Their progress was halted when they came under unexpectedly heavy fire from inside. Several police officers were injured.
A short time later a convoy of vehicles carrying French soldiers, accompanied by ambulances and fire engines, raced through the streets of Paris towards Saint-Denis. The police cordon was expanded and more roads in the area were sealed off.
Deputy mayor Stephane Peu went on i-Tele television to reassure Parisians that the gunfire was not a fresh attack but a “police intervention”.
By 6:30am a police helicopter was circling the apartment building and a pedestrian area at the centre of the seige.
Didier Paillard, the mayor of Saint-Denis, announced that schools in the vicinity would remain closed and public transport had been suspended. As more police reinforcements flooded into the area, exchanges of gunfire grew more intense and prolonged. There were also reports of grenades exploding.
One resident, Fabien Crombe, said on BFM television that he heard bursts of gunfire, followed by disquietening periods of silence.
Baptiste Marie, 26, a journalist who lives near the scene of the stand-off, said: “It started with an explosion. Then there was a second big explosion. Then two more explosions. There was an hour of gunfire.”
Amin Guizani, 21, said: “There were grenades. It was going, stopping. Kalashnikovs. Starting again.”
“We tried to stop our children hearing the noise,” said Farah Appane, who lives about 80 yards from where the raid took place. “My 19-month-old was crying. Our eight-year-old said, ‘What is it? Are there more attacks?’ ”
Riot police continued to patrol the streets, pointing guns at curious residents to move them off the roads.
Mr Marie said the officers seemed nervous. “You could see it in their eyes,” he said.
As the siege entered its third hour, seven explosions rocked Saint-Denis. Witnesses close to the building reported the sound of more grenades going off. Then silence.
Security forces managed to evacuate around 20 people who had been trapped in the apartment building. They were taken to the City Hall, 200 yards away, for protection. At 8:20am, French police announced that two suspects – a man and a woman – had been killed in the operation and two suspects were detained.
It was later confirmed that one of the early explosions heard at the scene was the female suspect detonating her suicide vest. The male suspect who died was hit by projectiles and grenades. The statement did not say if Abaaoud was among them, dead or alive.
Four officers were slightly injured and a police dog killed. The National Police said the seven-year-old Belgian Malinois, Diesel, was “killed by terrorists”.