SAINT DENIS, France - A suicide bomber who blew herself up in a raid by French police on Wednesday (Nov 18) was named by media reports as Hasna Aitboulahcen and said to be the cousin of the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday citing France's Le Parisien newspaper said the woman was 26 years old. A source close to the investigation had told Reuters the dead woman might have been the cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian Islamist militant of Moroccan origin accused of ordering the Nov 13 attacks. The gun and bomb assaults on bars and restaurants outside the Stade de France and at the Bataclan concert hall had left 129 people from 17 different countries dead.
Few details have emerged about the explosion triggered by the woman during the raid. But at least one witness said the woman had blonde hair and had pleaded for help from the police before reportedly detonating a vest or belt attached to her body.
Officials said police had conducted Wednesday's raid on an apartment in the Paris suburb of St Denis before dawn as part of a a hunt for Abaaoud.
Heavily armed officers triggered a massive firefight and multiple explosions when they entered the apartment building. A 20-year-old eyewitness named Christian told the Le Parisien newspaper there was a 10- to 15-minute lull in the shootings when he heard a woman shouting "Help, help, help me!"
She was then asked to identify herself by the police shooting from the opposite building.
The woman showed her hands while hiding her face. The police was heard twice asking her: "Where's your friend?" The woman replied several times "He's not my friend!"
The identity of the friend she was referring to in the exchange was unclear.
During the exchange, the woman was also repeatedly asked to keep her hands in the air. After initially withdrawing her hands, she put them up again several times before police warned her to keep them in the air. Police was also heard telling her "We're going to shoot," the witness recounted.
As the shooting resumed, the witness said an enormous explosion was suddenly heard from the window inside the apartment building.
"It was probably the woman who blew herself up," the witness said. "The windows shattered. Lots of objects from the apartment were thrown into the street, pieces of human flesh as well. They are still there. You can see a bit of the head, of skin, of ribs."
Speaking to the Libération newspaper, another witness named Thibault Chaffotte said he heard police talking about "a blonde woman with long hair".
"I believe this was the suicide bomber. They told her: 'Don't lower your arms. Put your hands in the air.' Afterwards, there was a very loud explosion. I think that's when she activated her bomb," he added.
Britain's The Guardian newspaper, citing police sources, said the woman had been under surveillance for several days and that the apartment had been used as a hideout by the woman to shelter Abaaoud and other suspects. She was reportedly a French-Moroccan national who was born in France and had grown up in the Paris area, The Guardian said.
She was apparently known to intelligence services and was believed to have run her own building company until 2012, called Beko Construction.
If her identity is confirmed, the woman is likely the first female suicide bomber in western Europe.
Police in the raid rained more than 5,000 rounds of ammunition on the building after terrified residents living in the area near the Stade de France stadium were evacuated.
The Washington Post quoted senior intelligence officials as saying Abaaoud himself had died in the shootout, but this could not be confirmed.
At least two bodies were found in the badly damaged building when it ended, but Paris prosecutor Francois Molins was quoted by AFP as saying identifying them was proving to be difficult.
Eight people were arrested but neither Abaaoud nor 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is also suspected of having taken part in the Paris attacks with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim, were among those held, the prosecutor said.