A tense, seven-hour raid in the Saint-Denis suburb against the suspected mastermind of last week’s carnage in Paris ended on Wednesday with at least two suspects dead and seven arrested as President Francois Hollande insisted France will not succumb to fear.
The target of the raid was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of last week’s brazen attacks in the French capital that killed more than 130. But his fate remained unclear.
Residents woke to explosions and gunfire as heavily armed French police backed by soldiers stormed two apartments shortly after 4am and fired 5000 rounds to neutralise a cell that was planning to launch new attacks.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said. said the identities of the dead were still being investigated, but that neither Abaoud nor the fugitive attacker Salah Abdeslam were among the seven held in custody.
“At this time, I’m not in a position to give a precise and definitive number for the people who died, nor their identities, but there are at least two dead people,” he told reporters.
However, French ambassador to India Francois Richier told NDTV Abaaoud may have killed himself during the raids.
Earlier the prosecutor’s office had said a woman -- purportedly a relative of Abaaoud -- detonated her explosive vest and a man was killed by grenades and police bullets during the raid.
But Moulins later backed away from the earlier statement that the woman blew herself up , saying it would be be verified by forensic tests.
A police official said four officers were injured in the gunbattle and a police dog died.
Watch | French Raid targets suspected mastermind of Paris attacks
Eradicate radicalisation: Hollande
Elsewhere in Paris, there was police presence in public places but life was as normal as could be under the circumstances.
Addressing an assembly of mayors, Hollande said the raid was “to neutralise terrorists who had links to the perpetrators of Friday’s hideous crimes”. He said police endured “terrifying conditions” to carry out the raid.
Repeating his earlier message that France is at war against Islamic State militants, Hollande said the group is “threatening the whole world” and the entire power of the government will be put towards protecting the French people against terrorists.
“We need a robust legal framework to confront the circumstances...I have decided that we should re-establish control of our frontiers. The concept of the terrorists is to plunge our country into division,” he said. France’s priority now is “eradicating radicalisation”, he added.
“France will remain a country of liberty and culture...France will never give in to fear.” Hollande said he wanted a “large coalition” working together against IS militants to destroy a group that “commits massacres” in West Asia.
Molins said the raid was launched after information from tapped telephone conversations, surveillance and witness accounts indicated Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan origin, might be in a safe house in the area.
Abaaoud was believed to be in Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but bragged in IS propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.
Prosecutor Molins and interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve did not specify whether any suspects might still be at large.
Hollande held an emergency meeting with senior ministers at Elysee Palace to monitor the raid.
Residents said an explosion shook the neighbourhood shortly after 4am. “We guessed it was linked to Friday night,” said Yves Steux, barman at L’Escargot restaurant, 250 metres from the assault.”My wife panicked and was scared and told me not to leave, but I ignored her. Life goes on.”
Baptiste Marie, a 26-year-old independent journalist who lives in the area, said a second large explosion was followed by “two more explosions. There was an hour of gunfire.”
Another witness, Amine Guizani, said he heard grenades and automatic gunfire. “It was continuous. It didn’t stop,” he said. “It lasted from 4.20 until 5.30. It was a good hour. I couldn’t say how many shots were fired, but it was probably 500. Hundreds, definitely. There were maybe 10 explosions.”
Sporadic bangs and explosions continued, and at 7.30am, at least seven blasts shook the centre of Saint-Denis.
In Saint-Denis, police cordoned off the area nearby, including a pedestrian zone lined with shops and 19th-century apartment buildings. Riot police cleared people from streets, pointing guns at curious residents to move them off roads.
Saint-Denis is one of France’s most historic places. French kings were crowned and buried through the centuries in its famed basilica, a majestic Gothic church that towers over the area. Today, the district is home to a vibrant and ethnically diverse population and sees sporadic tension between police and violent youths.
Jets pound IS targets
Investigators have identified Abaaoud as the chief architect of Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed more than 130 people and injured 350 others.
A US official briefed on intelligence matters said Abaaoud is a key figure in an IS external operations cell that American intelligence agencies have been tracking for months.
Seven attackers died in Friday’s attacks, which targeted bars, restaurants, the Bataclan concert hall and a stadium. The IS has claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Police said before the raid they were hunting for two fugitives suspected of taking part in Friday’s attacks. That took the number of attackers to at least nine. Authorities had previously said eight people were involved in the bloodshed: seven who died and one who got away and slipped into Belgium.
Meanwhile, French fighter jets attacked IS targets in Syria for a third night. The French defence ministry said 10 jets hit two IS command centres in the militant base of Raqqa in Syria.
The Paris attacks have galvanized international determination to confront the IS in Syria and Iraq, bringing France, Russia and the US closer to an alliance.
(With inputs from agencies)
(With inputs from agencies)