France on big manhunt for terror suspects

Air strikes also launched on ISIS targets in Syria in major offensive after Paris attacks

PARIS • France has gone on the offensive following the terror attacks on Paris last Friday, conducting sweeping police raids around the country overnight and carrying out the biggest air strikes on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets.

Police forces launched 168 raids in 19 French departments, including the Paris region and in Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Toulouse.

They arrested 23 people and confiscated multiple weapons, including 19 handguns, eight long guns and four heavy weapons, as well as computer hardware, mobile phones and narcotics. Another 104 people were put under house arrest.

Under a state of emergency that President Francois Hollande declared last Friday after the attacks that left 129 people dead, the police are empowered to conduct raids without a search warrant.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has made plain that the swift and tough action would continue. "Let this be clear to everyone, this is just the beginning, these actions are going to continue," he said.

The manhunt also extended beyond France to Belgium, with the authorities there looking seriously at the possibility that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian now fighting with ISIS in Syria, might have helped plan the attacks, according to a European official close to the investigation. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.

Snipers in Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday, where the manhunt for the terror suspects has widened to.
Snipers in Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek in Brussels, Belgium, yesterday, where the manhunt for the terror suspects has widened to. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The Belgian authorities had already been looking for Abaaoud as he is the "presumed mastermind" of a terrorist plot that was foiled in January; Abaaoud has been prominently featured in ISIS propaganda.

A huge manhunt was also under way for another key suspect, Salah Abdeslam, 26, who is believed to have helped carry out the attacks last Friday. His brother was among the attackers killed.

Officials have identified five of the seven suicide attackers who died last Friday. Four were French, while the fifth man was stopped and fingerprinted in Greece last month and was possibly Syrian.

France observed the last of three days of national mourning yesterday. Along with other countries in Europe, France observed a minute's silence at noon yesterday in memory of the victims of Friday's multiple terror strikes, the worst on French soil.

Addressing an exceptional joint gathering of Parliament in Versailles, south of Paris, Mr Hollande said Friday's attacks were decided in Syria, prepared in Belgium and perpetrated with French help.

He also called for a United Nations Security Council session on fighting militants.

France's Defence Ministry said on Sunday that 10 French fighter jets dropped 20 bombs on Syria, targeting ISIS.

There were more than 30 explosions heard in the Raqqa city area, said Mr Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict using a network of sources on the ground.

It was not immediately clear if all the blasts were caused by air strikes. ISIS uses Raqqa as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2015, with the headline 'France on big manhunt for terror suspects'. Print Edition | Subscribe