Paris attack suspects linked to three rented safe houses in Belgium

AFP-JIJI

Belgian police have identified three safe houses used by key suspects including presumed ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud as they plotted the deadly Paris attacks, prosecutors said Wednesday.

The premises include a flat in Charleroi — a town south ofBrussels where a major airport is located, as well as a house in the rural village of Auvelais near the French border and a flat in Brussels.

“The investigators were able to identify three premises that have been used by the conspiring perpetrators of the attacks of 13th November 2015,” Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the federal prosecutor, said in a statement.

French President Francois Hollande has previously said that the Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed were planned in Syria but prepared and organized in Belgium.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Belgian investigators found fingerprints from Abaaoud and suicide bomber Bilal Hadfi as well as mattresses at the flat in Charleroi, the prosecutor’s statement said.

Investigators say Hadfi blew himself up outside the Stade de France on the night of the attacks while French police killed Abaaoud in a raid north of Paris days after later.

Prosecutors announced last week the discovery of the Brussels flat in the Schaerbeek district, and said they had found the fingerprints of Paris fugitive Salah Abdeslam there along with traces of explosives and possible suicide belts.

But they revealed for the first time on Wednesday that they had also found DNA traces from Hadfi, precision scales and a drawing representing a person wearing a large belt.

No traces of explosives or weapons were found in either the Charleroi or Auvelais lodgings.

The Auvelais house was searched on Nov. 26, the Charleroi apartment on Dec. 9 and the Schaerbeek flat on Dec. 10, they said.

All of the accommodations were rented using false names and paid for in cash, prosecutors said.

In the case of the Auvelais house, the fake identity — Soufiane Kayal — was that of one of two people picked up in Budapest on Sept. 9 by Salah Abdeslam, who is now on the run.

Prosecutors also said the investigation had shown that the Seat Leon car, which was used to commit the Paris attacks, had “stopped in the immediate vicinity of the premises in Charleroi and Auvelais.”

The new tenant living at the property in Auvelais said there was little sign that it had once been an alleged safe house for the Paris attackers.

“There was a bit of fingerprint powder everywhere when we moved in, but otherwise it was empty,” Martine Culot told AFP. “I just hope the suspect stays far away and that nothing else happens.”

An international manhunt has been underway for Belgian-born Abdeslam, 26, since suicide bombers and assailants firing automatic weapons launched the wave of attacks across Paris.

France has said that Abaaoud, a Brussels resident, was the ringleader.

Abaaoud was a one-time school bully and petty criminal from the Brussels immigrant district of Molenbeek who graduated to become a leading Islamic State militant with ties to a series of plots in Europe.

The 28-year-old of Moroccan origin had recently boasted of evading police dragnets in Europe, and taunted European authorities from what was assumed to be an Islamic State base in Syria.

But investigators were also examining whether the two men with fake identities that Abdeslam picked up in Hungary — Soufiane Kayal and Samir Bouzid — could also have been operational commanders in the Paris attacks.

“It’s still a possibility but it has not been confirmed by the investigation,” prosecutors’ spokesman Van Der Sypt told AFP.

He also said the investigators have found nothing to suggest any suspects used or planned to use the airport at Charleroi.