Paris attacks: French police stopped Belgian suspect's car three times, but let him go

Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam.
Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam. PHOTO: EPA

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - French police had three opportunities to catch a Belgian suspect in the Paris attacks and each time let him go, a defence lawyer said on Tuesday (Nov 18), adding to the missed signals complicating efforts to track down those behind an onslaught in which 129 people were killed.

On the night of the attack in Paris, French police failed to capture Belgian Salah Abdeslam, believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the Paris attacks, despite having stopped the car in which he was riding three times during a massive manhunt, Mr Xavier Carette, the driver's lawyer, said.

Police apparently had no idea the passenger in the car would later be identified as having been linked to the attacks.

Speaking to Belgian broadcaster RTBF, Mr Carette said his client, Mohammed Amri, suspected nothing when his friend Abdeslam, 26, called two hours after the attacks for a ride to Brussels and said his car had broken down.

Amri is in police custody; Abdeslam remains at large.

"You know, when you're on a car journey, you can talk about everything and nothing, listen to music, even smoke a joint, but at no time, no, they didn't talk about that," Mr Carette said of the massacre. He said young Arab men are used to police stops.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday - four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month.

Abdeslam is one of two men police believe were directly involved and who subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Last Friday night's attacks, claimed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, raised security concerns around the world. Bomb fears prompted Hanover, Germany, police to call off a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands two hours before game time on Tuesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been due to attend.

In Syria, France and Russia bombed targets to punish ISIS for the coordinated Paris massacre and the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai on Oct 31. In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people.

ISIS said they carried out the attacks in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria. Investigators said the Paris plot was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa. French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening in the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

The Kremlin said Mr Putin spoke to Mr Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

"We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions," Mr Putin told military chiefs. "Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

Mr Hollande will visit Mr Putin in Moscow on Nov 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against ISIS, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Mr Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants.

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU's mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request, but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

Police in Hanover, Germany, said bomb fears prompted them to call off the soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands, but no arrests were made and no explosives were found. "We had received specific indications that an attack with explosives was planned," Hanover Police President Volker Kluwe told NDR state broadcaster. "We took them seriously, and that is why we took the measures."

One of the Friday night targets was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly soccer match.

At London's Wembley Stadium, lit up in the blue, white and red of the French flag, English soccer fans saluted their French opponents at a friendly soccer match on Tuesday by roaring out an emotional rendition of the "Marseillaise" national anthem.

England won the match 2-0.

The discovery that at least one of the Paris gunmen was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece prompted several Western countries to begin to question their willingness to take in refugees.

Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, worried about Islamist militant attacks, threatened to suspend President Barack Obama's efforts to allow 10,000 more Syrian refugees into the United States.

The White House said it was looking for ways to tighten screening, noting that people escaping war-torn Syria already undergo rigorous vetting.

Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced fears that housing refugees from a conflict zone in the Middle East could eventually leave the United States open to attacks like those staged by al Qaeda in New York and Washington on Sept 11, 2001.