BRUSSELS (AFP) - Wanted fugitive Salah Abdeslam, suspected of involvement in last month's Paris attacks, got past three police checks in France as he fled to Belgium just hours after the terror assaults, a source close to the Belgian investigation said on Sunday (Dec 20).
Confirming a report in the French daily Le Parisien, the source quoted Hamza Attou, suspected along with Mohammed Amri of driving Abdeslam to Brussels the day after the coordinated Nov 13 attacks in which 130 people died.
At the first checkpoint Attou and Amri admitted to police that they had just smoked marijuana, but were let go, the source said.
All three are from the gritty Brussels suburb of Molenbeek.
Abdeslam sent a text message asking Attou and Amri to come for him, and they found him "agitated... uneasy... unwell," the source said.
Then came a threat: "He told us to take him back to Brussels or he would blow up the car," Attou said, according to the source.
To underscore the threat, Abdeslam bragged about killing people with a Kalashnikov, adding that his brother Brahim had blown himself up.
Seven attackers blew themselves up or were killed by police in the course of the evening on Nov 13. Five of them have been identified.
To avoid police checks, Abdeslam asked Attou and Amri to take minor roads, but they got lost and wound up on a motorway, Attou said.
At the first checkpoint they were asked if they had "consumed" any substances.
Abdeslam was in the back seat and said nothing, while Amri and Attou replied "yes" because they had just smoked marijuana.
"The policeman said that was not good, but it was not the priority today," Attou said, according to the source.
They were not asked for their papers, but they were at the second and third police checkpoints.
At the third stop, near Cambrai in the far north of France, Abdeslam even gave his address in Molenbeek.
They stopped for petrol and Abdeslam went to the toilet, walking back with his jacket open, revealing that he was not carrying the explosives which Attou and Amri had been led to believe he had on him, the source told AFP.
Abdeslam had told them he left his brother's ID card in a car - he did not say which car - "so that he would be known the world over like Coulibaly".
He was referring to Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a policewoman in Paris on Jan 8 as part of the series of attacks that began with the massacre at the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The following day Coulibaly took hostages at a kosher supermarket, killing four before being gunned down in a police operation.
The three days of horror in January left 17 people dead.
The investigation into the November gun and suicide attacks, claimed by the Islamist State group, is being conducted in both France and Belgium, the home country of several of the attackers.
A French source close to the investigation confirmed Le Parisien's report that one of the attackers at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people were massacred sent a text message to a Belgian number saying "It's on, we've started".
Two men are in detention in France on suspicion of providing lodging to the presumed mastermind of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.
Abaaoud was killed in a police raid a few days after the attacks.
In Belgium, eight men have been jailed including four accused of helping Abdeslam get away in the hours after the attacks.
Suspected accomplices have also been arrested in Austria.
Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national, remains at large.