Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam may have evaded Belgian police by hiding in a vehicle or item of furniture as they homed in on him after the massacre, Belgian media reported.
Brussels-born Abdeslam is believed to have played a central role in the November 13 attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds of others before driving back over the border from France to Belgium hours later.
On the Sunday and Monday after the attacks, Belgian security forces staged several raids, including in Molenbeek, the Brussels district which is home to Abdeslam and has served as a haven for several jihadists in recent decades.
In one of those locations, Belgian public broadcaster RTBF said late Wednesday that investigators “detected signs during the raid that he had been there,” without sourcing its report.
“This leads to the conclusion that the suspect managed to flee before security forces intervened,” the report said. “The most likely theory is that he was smuggled out by his accomplices.”
Under the scenario, the accomplices “took advantage of the coming and going of cars and a home removal to hide Salah Abdeslam, either in a vehicle, or perhaps in a piece of furniture,” the broadcaster said.
“It’s the top theory embraced by investigators,” it added.
Causing a media uproar, Justice Minister Koen Geens told broadcaster VTM that security forces delayed a raids of the site because of a ban on night-time searched between 9 pm and 5 am.
“I think that the federal investigators would have liked to carry out the search earlier in the night. 5 in the morning was too late,” he said.
He did not say why the raid in the end began five hours after the nightly ban, at 10 am.
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.