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Abdeslam charged with 'terrorist murder'

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An ambulance believed to be transporting top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam leaves the building of the Federal Police in Brussels, on Saturday. Photo: John Thys / AFP
09:38 CET+01:00
UPDATED: Key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam was formally charged Saturday with "terrorist murder" and being part of a terrorist group, the Belgian federal prosecutors office said.

However, Abdeslam will fight his extradition to France from Belgium where he was formally charged on Saturday with "terrorist murder" after his dramatic capture in central Brussels.

French President Francois Hollande said shortly after Abdeslam's arrest on Friday that he wanted to see him transferred to France as quickly as possible to face prosecution for the deadly attacks claimed by the Islamic State group.

"I can already tell you that we will oppose his extradition," Abdeslam's lawyer Sven Mary told reporters at federal police headquarters in Brussels.

Legal experts said this could delay but not prevent his handover to the French authorities on a European Arrest Warrant which the European Union introduced specifically to speed up extradition cases.

An investigating judge formally charged Abdeslam with "participation in terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist organisation," a prosecutors statement said.

Abdeslam's arrest in the gritty Molenbeek neighbourhood was hailed by European and US leaders, while French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said it dealt a "major blow" to IS jihadists operating in Europe.

Abdeslam, 26, and four other suspects were arrested on Friday in the gritty Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek.

During the raid, he was lightly wounded in the leg, prosecutors said.

Also arrested was a man known by the fake name Amine Choukri, who in addition used a false Syrian name Monir Ahmed Alaaj.

Three members of a family which sheltered Abdeslam in Molenbeek, where he lived and ran a bar with his brother Brahim, were also detained.

Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up during the Paris attacks and was buried discreetly on Thursday in a Brussels cemetery.

The arrests leave only one known suspect still on the run, Mohamed Abrini, who was filmed with Abdeslam two days before the attacks at a petrol station on a motorway close to Paris.

Story continues below…

Former small-time criminal Abdeslam is believed to be the last surviving member of the 10-man jihadist team that carried out attacks on the Bataclan rock venue, restaurants, bars and the Stade de France stadium.

He apparently fled by car to his hometown Brussels the day after the rampage, having refused to blow himself up, and is believed to have spent much if not all of the subsequent four months in the city.

Prosecutors said special forces raided a house in Molenbeek on Friday because of evidence found in an operation in Brussels on Tuesday, in which a Paris-linked suspect died in a gun battle with police and two other people
escaped.

One of Abdeslam's fingerprints was found at the scene of Tuesday's raid, sparking the huge manhunt that led to his capture.

A witness told AFP the operation began at around 1530 GMT when dozens of police cars swooped into the run-down Molenbeek neighbourhood.

"I heard about three or four shots fired, but they were muffled, as if taking place indoors," said Karim, a charity employee who lives in the largely Muslim Molenbeek.

Footage on Belgian media appeared to show a white-hooded Abdeslam being dragged to a waiting police car by armed special forces officers.

Belgium has been at the centre of the investigation into the Paris attacks almost from day one, and has been accused of blunders that let the perpetrators slip under the radar.

"Either Salah Abdeslam is very clever, or the Belgian services are stupid, which is more likely," said French lawmaker Alain Marsaud, a member of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into possible security failings over the November attacks.

With Belgium having arrested a series of people over links with Abdeslam, Hollande said many more were involved in the Paris attacks than originally believed.

Investigators believe Abdeslam rented rooms in the Paris area to be used by the attackers and also hired one of the cars in which he drove the suicide bombers to the Stade de France.

He was then supposed to blow himself up but apparently backed out, and an explosives-filled suicide vest was later found in Paris in an area where mobile phone signals indicated he had been.

Police believe he fled across the border the next morning. Several people have been arrested on suspicion of helping him and his fingerprints were found in December at different Brussels apartments.

The ringleader of the attacks, IS member Abdelhamid Abaaoud, and attacker Bilal Hadfi, both dead, also had links to Molenbeek, a largely immigrant district that has been a hotbed of Islamist violence for decades.

Abdeslam and his brother, who blew himself up during the Paris assault, had run a bar in the area until it was shut down by the authorities a few weeks before the attacks.

Belgian authorities have meanwhile identified the man killed in the raid on Tuesday linked to Abdeslam as Algerian national Mohamed Belkaid, 35, who was living illegally in Belgium.

He was reportedly on a list of IS fighters leaked last week as a volunteer to commit a suicide bomb attack.

Prosecutors also said he was wanted in connection with the November attacks.

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