PARIS • In a massive pre-dawn police assault, which lasted seven hours, the French police yesterday stormed an apartment in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, in an attempt to find the Belgian man suspected of orchestrating the Paris terrorist attacks.
Two people died in the raid, including a young woman who detonated an explosive vest, and seven people were arrested.
It was unclear if the suspected mastermind of last Friday's attacks which killed 129 people, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin, had been caught. Some reports said the raid had stopped a jihadist cell that had been planning an attack on Paris' business district, La Defense.
The raid began around 4.15am (11.15am Singapore time), when special police forces, backed by truckloads of soldiers, cordoned off an area near the Place Jean Jaures, a main square, not far from the Stade de France, where three of the seven attackers who died last Friday night blew themselves up.
Gunfire and explosions rang out and terrified residents were evacuated or told to stay in their homes, with their lights switched off.
Some spoke of their fear and panic as the shooting started.
"We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake," said Ms Sabrine, who lives below the apartment that was raided. She said she heard the people above her talking to each other, running around and reloading their guns.
As the stand-off dragged on, with schools and shops shut, the bells from the nearby basilica where French kings were entombed chimed every 15 minutes.
A man near the scene of the raid, who gave his name only as Said and described himself as a French Muslim, welcomed the police operation. "It's about time the police came to Saint-Denis to get rid of these supposed Muslims," he said.
"Hopefully this is the beginning of the solution for the neighbourhood and for France."
Phone taps, surveillance and witness accounts led French investigators to believe that Abaaoud, who called himself a "terrorist tourist" on Facebook, was holed up in Saint- Denis, said Paris prosecutor Francois Molins.
Three people in the apartment, two who were found "hiding in the rubble" and two more outside the apartment were arrested, he added.
The raid came after footage from the scene of one of the Paris attacks revealed a ninth suspect may have taken part. Seven were killed in the carnage last Friday, most after detonating suicide belts.
As police also continued the manhunt for the other fugitive, Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, 26, French and Russian jets pounded targets in the Syrian stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for a third consecutive day. At least 33 ISIS fighters were killed in the air strikes on Raqqa so far, a monitoring group said.
In signs that the air strikes against ISIS will intensify further, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle steamed from the southern port of Toulon yesterday, heading for the eastern Mediterranean. It will boost the number of French jets available for strikes in Syria to 48 from the current 12.
ISIS said in its magazine yesterday that it had killed a Chinese and a Norwegian captive, showing what appeared to be pictures of the dead men with a banner reading "executed". It did not give details about how, when or where they were killed. The men were not named. In its previous issue of Dabiq, it had said the two captives were "for sale".
ISIS also said it had originally planned to bring down a Western plane over Egypt's Sinai but changed its target to a Russian one after Moscow launched air strikes in Syria. It claimed it had smuggled the bomb onto the Russian plane, which crashed and killed all 224 people on board, after finding a security loophole at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS