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Paris terror attacks: What we know of Brussel’s shoot-out

One gunman was killed and four officers, including a French policewoman were injured, but who were counter-terrorism investigators looking for in Tuesday's raid?

Paris terror attacks: What we know of Brussel's shoot-out
Photo: AFP

Tuesday’s shoot-out in the Forest area of Brussels took everyone – even those French and Belgian police leading the operation, by surprise.

Local government leaders in the area described it as an “ordinary raid that went wrong”.

Officers thought they were carrying out a routine search on an empty house, but when they entered the apartment they were met with a hail of bullets fired by “one or several people”.

A series of gun fights ensued and by the time calm returned several hours later, four police officers had been injured, including a French police woman, and one Kalashnikov-wielding gunman was dead.

There were initial reports of other gunmen fleeing the scene via rooftops. On Wednesday Belgian prosecutors confirmed that two fugitives were still on the run and were being actively hunted.

News of the shoot-out quickly gained worldwide media attention as speculation grew that the raid was targeting Europe’s most-wanted man Salah Abdeslam, 26, the chief suspect in the Paris attacks, who fled to Brussels hours after the carnage on November 13th and remains on the run.

But officials quickly confirmed that the raid was not directly linked to the hunt for Abdeslam and later in the evening it was confirmed that the dead gunman wasn’t the wanted fugitive.

The gunman has been identified as Belcaid Mohammed, an Algerian national who was was illegally in Belgium. He was found with an Isis flag and extremist material, Belgian prosecutors said on Wednesday.

Terror experts believe he may have been involved in the organization of the Paris terror attacks.

Much of the investigation into the Paris terror attacks has focussed on Belgium and in particular Brussels.

French President Francois Hollande has said that the Paris attacks, which left 130 dead and hundreds more injured, were planned in Syria but prepared and organized in Belgium. Many of the attackers, including ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, were from Brussels.

A French police source told AFP the operation was focused on the associates of one, or several, of 11 people who have been charged in Belgium in connection with the attacks.

Eight of those 11 remain in police custody, awaiting trial on various terrorism charges.

While nine terrorists are known to have taken part in the actual attacks on Paris, experts believe a network numbering as many as 25 may have been involved in the logistics and organization. The fear is that these accomplices may be be planning further attacks on Paris or elsewhere in Europe.

Official sources told BFM TV that the man who rented the flat on Rue de Dries in the Forest suburb of Brussels had also rented one of the safe houses in Belgium used by the terrorists. He is said to be a 27-year-old Belgian-Moroccan.

In this safehouse, located in Charleroi around 60km from Brussels, police found DNA traces belonging to one of the Stade de France suicide bombers Bilal Hadfi and the Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

By midnight on Tuesday, the perimeter around the area had been reduced to a small cordon around the apartment, suggesting police didn’t think there were other gunmen at large.

Local media did report that other raids were carried out in the Forest suburb later in the evening.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Salah Abdeslam and his accomplice Mohamed Abrini continues.

He was reportedly holed up for three weeks after the Paris attacks in an apartment in the Schaerbeek district in north Brussels, where police found a fingerprint, traces of explosives and possible suicide belts.

But since then the trace has gone cold.

Belgian prosecutors are due to give a press conference at 10.30 am on Wednesday.

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TERRORISM

Paris attacks suspect Abdeslam refuses to talk at Belgian trial

The only surviving suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, refused to answer questions on Monday as he went on trial in Brussels over a bloody shootout with police that led to his capture.

Paris attacks suspect Abdeslam refuses to talk at Belgian trial
Belgian police officers stand guard prior to the opening of the trial of prime suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks Salah Abdeslam at the "Palais de Justice". Photo: AFP
Tight security surrounded the start of the trial of the 28-year-old, who was transferred overnight from a jail near the French capital Paris and arriving in Belgium in a convoy of police vehicles.
 
The 28-year-old, once Europe's most wanted man, left a jail near the French capital in the middle of the night in a convoy of tactical police vehicles with blue lights flashing.
   
The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent faces charges of attempted terrorist murder of police officers and carrying banned weapons over a gunbattle in the Forest district of Brussels on March 15, 2016.
   
Three police officers were wounded and a jihadist was killed in the fight, which came as Abdeslam was on the run four months after the Paris attacks. He was captured three days later.
   
Hundreds of Belgian security forces turned the Palais de Justice court building in Brussels into a virtual fortress while a helicopter with searchlights circled overhead as he arrived.
   
“This must remain an ordinary trial,” said Luc Hennart, who presides over the court. “If there is the slightest problem I will order the courtroom to be evacuated.”
   
Abdeslam and the man arrested with him, Tunisian national Sofiane Ayari, 24, could serve up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
 
Photo: AFP
 
'Important for victims'
 
The non-jury trial is the prelude to a later one in France and prosecutors hope the Brussels trial will yield clues not only about the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris but also the suicide bombings months later in Brussels.
   
Abdeslam has refused point-blank to speak to investigators throughout the nearly two years since his arrest, which capped a four-month hunt for Europe's most wanted man.
   
But he has insisted on attending the Brussels trial, where three judges are to lead proceedings for four days, raising the question of whether he will use it to break his silence.
   
Hennart insisted that the trial would only focus on the shootout, saying: “That is what we will talk about, we will not talk about either the Brussels or Paris attacks.”
   
Tight secrecy surrounded the plans for transferring Abdeslam from Fleury-Merogis prison in the Parisian suburbs, and then back to a prison just across the border in northern France every night.
   
Two separate convoys left Fleury-Merogis in the middle of the night with an escort of elite French officers with blue lights flashing, while a third group of unmarked vehicles left shortly afterwards.
   
Pot-smoking delinquent to key Paris attacks suspect: The story of Salah Abdeslam
Photo: AFP
 
The boyish former bar owner has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Merogis, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
 
At the Brussels court journalists and officials all had to pass through security checks. A police sniffer dog checked the austere courtroom itself, into which journalists were banned from taking phones and computers.
 
Shot in the leg
 
Investigators believe Abdeslam's capture three days after the shootout caused members of his jihadist cell to bring forward plans for the attacks in Brussels.
   
Suicide attacks on March 22, 2016, killed 32 people at Brussels airport and a metro station near the EU headquarters.
   
The same cell is believed to have been behind both the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.
 
Police say Abdeslam and Ayari were holed up at the Forest flat when it was raided by French and Belgian police in a routine operation after the Paris attacks.
 
A third suspect, 33-year-old Algerian Mohamed Belkaid, died while providing covering fire for their escape through a back door.
   
Police say they found Abdeslam's fingerprints in the flat, confirming they were on the trail of the last suspect in the rifle and bomb attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, bars, restaurants and the national stadium in the French capital on November 13, 2015.
 
Abdeslam is reported to have disposed of a suicide belt before fleeing. He is also suspected of being the driver in the attacks, in which his brother Brahim was one of the suicide bombers.
 
Armed officers shot in the leg and captured him and Ayari just yards from Abdeslam's home in Molenbeek, a gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood.
   
Ayari entered Europe in September 2015 via the Greek island of Lesbos at the height of a migration crisis gripping the continent, and was one of dozen suspected jihadists ferried around Europe by Abdeslam.