PARIS • Through the morning rush hour, as all schools stayed shut and terrified residents stayed locked up indoors, a tense seven-hour stand-off between security forces and terror suspects played out in a historic Paris suburb.
Saint Denis, a suburb of 118,000 people, is known for its melting-pot population and large Muslim community, as well as a Gothic basilica where many French monarchs are buried.
Yesterday, it witnessed contingents of special police forces and truckloads of soldiers troop in and cordon 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 in a series of attacks on Paris last Friday blew themselves up.
It was around 4.15am and the police were acting on information that another pending terror attack was in the works, a French police official told The Washington Post.
Inside a flat on the third floor of a building on the Rue du Corbillon, at least four suspects were holed up.
An initial series of explosions was heard, followed by sporadic bursts of gunfire that went on over several hours. About 110 members of the security services were involved.
One suspect, a woman, yet to be identified, detonated an explosives vest and killed herself. A police helicopter spotted a man trying to escape while firing at police. Police targeted the man and killed him.
Five police officers were lightly wounded and a seven-year-old police dog, a Malinois named Diesel, was killed. At 11.47am, Mr Stephane Le Foll, a government spokesman, announced on Twitter that the operation was over.
The real target of the police operation was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian thought to have led the ISIS effort to terrorise Europe. He is seen as the "guru" of last Friday's deadly attacks at a stadium, concert hall and bars and restaurants in Paris, which killed at least 129 people and wounded more than 300 others. Police said it was too early to confirm if he had been caught.
We heard so many booms. I'm shaking. We are very scared, I can't stop crying.
MS VERONIQUE HAOUNOH, 43, who was holed up with several neighbours in an apartment across the street from yesterday's police operation
TOLD TO LEAVE SCENE
I heard bursts of machine gunfire. I got out (of the car), masked policemen stopped us and told us to leave.
REDA, a taxi driver
The Saint Denis operation was followed by French President Francois Hollande from the Elysee palace, along with the French Prime Minister and the ministers of defence, justice and the interior. US President Barack Obama was kept abreast of developments, a White House official said.
Ms Djamila Khaldi, a 54-year-old cashier who lives in the area, was preparing to take her daughter to the airport when the gunfire erupted. She said she was not surprised that the police had tracked the suspects to the neighbourhood.
She said a friend of hers believed that she had seen one of the wanted men, Salah Abdeslam, on Monday. "She was terrified and she looked at another woman knowing that she recognised him too," Ms Khaldi told The New York Times. "They did not dare to go to the police."
Mr Uthayaseelan Sanmugan, a 38-year-old cook who lives near the targeted apartment, told The Washington Post that he woke up at 4.30am to the sound of gunfire. From his window, he saw the lights of weapon lasers outside.
He said: "When I got to the street, I saw a lot of blood on the pavement. The blood of the terrorists."
He added that the explosions were so loud that the buildings trembled.
Saint Denis Mayor Didier Paillard said the Rue du Corbillon, where the raid occurred, had "many buildings and habitats in a disgraceful state", with some apartments lacking even electricity and running water. "This is a city that has 130 different nationalities, including people who come from war zones. We are a population that needs serenity."
French media outlets reported that the location of the suspected hideout was gleaned from one of the attackers' cellphones, which was discovered in a rubbish bin near the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people died last Friday.
A man arrested during the police operation later told Agence France-Presse that he had lent the besieged apartment to the men as a favour to a friend. "I said that there was no mattress, they told me, it's not a problem, they just wanted water and to pray," the man said before being led away by the police.