Belgian police delayed a raid on a suspected hiding place of Paris attacks fugitive Salah Abdeslam because of a ban on night-time raids, the justice minister said Wednesday.
Brussels-born Abdeslam is believed to have played a key logistical role in the November 13th attacks that killed 130 people before driving back over the border from France to Belgium hours later.
"Our security services told us that it could not be ruled out that he was there (in the house), but that the hours we are not allowed to carry out raids - that is 9pm to 5am - did not exactly help us find Salah Abdeslam at that time," Justice Minister Koen Geens told public RTBF television.
"As he has not been found, I cannot confirm that he was there."
He was referring to one of a series of raids on November 15th and 16th in the troubled Brussels district of Molenbeek, which has been linked to the Paris attacks and a series of other jihadist plots.
The Belgian government announced a day after the attacks that it was changing the ban on night-time raids so that they could be carried out in terrorism cases - but that this would only take effect at the beginning of next year.
France and several other European countries have similar bans on overnight police raids, a measure which is meant to guard against the abuse of police powers of arrest.
(Police in Molenbeek carry out day time raids on properties. Photo: AFP)
Belgian prosecutors rejected suggestions that the night-time ban had let Abdeslam - whose brother Brahim blew himself up outside a cafe during the Paris attacks - off the hook.
"We had some information suggesting Salah was or had been in the home in question. A raid was therefore carried out and turned up nothing," a spokesman for the federal prosecutors office told Belga news agency.
(A huge police operation in Molenbeek. Photo: AFP)
"To say we weren't able to arrest him because we cannot carry out raids between 9 pm and 5 am and that he escaped during this time period is an extrapolation."
French and Belgian authorities have been under scrutiny following the revelation that Salah Abdeslam was able to pass unhindered through a checkpoint at Cambrai, northern France, on the morning after the attacks.
Several people have since been charged with helping him on his return to Brussels.
Abdelsam was wearing suicide belt
Authorities recently admitted they had no idea of Abdeslam's whereabouts and they are still trying to determine his exact role in the November 13th attacks.
Abdeslam was detected by mobile phone data in the Paris suburb of Montrouge on the night of the attacks, before he was picked up and driven to Belgium.
Sources close to the investigation confirmed this week that a suicide bomb belt, found in a waste bin in Montrouge was indeed worn by Abdeslam after DNA tests proved conclusive.
It is not clear whether Abdeslam was supposed to blow himself up and got cold feet or whether he just wore the belt in case he was captured by police.