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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.

TERRORISM

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks

US Vice President Kamala Harris and French Prime Minister Jean Castex laid wreaths at a Paris cafe and France's national football stadium Saturday six years since deadly terror attacks that left 130 people dead.

US vice president lays wreaths at site of 2015 Paris terror attacks
US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff lay flowers after ceremonies at Le Carillon bar and Le Petit Cambodge restaurant, at which 130 people were killed during the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Photo: Sarahbeth Maney/POOL/AFP

The attacks by three separate teams of Islamic State group jihadists on the night of November 13, 2015 were the worst in France since World War II.

Gunmen mowed down 129 people in front of cafes and at a concert hall in the capital, while a bus driver was killed after suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gates of the stadium in its suburbs.

Harris, wrapping up a four-day trip to France, placed a bouquet of white flowers in front of a plaque honouring the victims outside a Paris cafe.

Castex attended a minute of silence at the Stade de France football stadium, along with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, before laying wreaths at the sites of the other attacks inside Paris.

In front of the Bataclan concert hall, survivors and relatives of the victims listened to someone read out the names of each of the 90 people killed during a concert there six years ago.

Public commemorations of the tragedy were called off last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Last year we weren’t allowed to come and we all found it really tough,” said Bruno Poncet, who made it out alive of the Bataclan.

But he said the start of a trial over the attacks in September meant that those attending the commemoration this year felt more united.

‘Overcome it all’

“We’ve really bonded thanks to the trial,” he said. “During previous commemorations, we’d spot each other from afar without really daring to speak to each other. We were really shy. But standing up in court has really changed everything.”

The marathon trial, the biggest in France’s modern legal history, is expected to last until May 2022.

Twenty defendants are facing sentences of up to life in prison, including the sole attacker who was not gunned down by police, Salah Abdeslam, a French-Moroccan national who was captured in Brussels. Six of the defendants are being tried in absentia.

Poncet said he felt it was crucial that he attend the hearings. “I can’t possibly not. It’s our lives that are being discussed in that room, and it’s important to come to support the others and to try to overcome it all.”

Survivors have taken to the witness stand to recount the horror of the attacks, but also to describe life afterwards.

Several said they had been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, grappling with survivor’s guilt, or even feeling alienated from the rest of society.

Saturday’s commemorations are to wrap up with a minute of silence at the Stade de France in the evening before the kick-off for a game between France and Kazakhstan.

It was during a football match between France and Germany that three suicide bombers blew themselves up in 2015.

Then-French president Francois Hollande was one of the 80,000 people in the crowd, before he was discreetly whisked away to avoid triggering mass panic.

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