Gunman dead, manhunt launched in Belgian-French raid on Paris attacks-linked Brussels flat

AP/AFP-JIJI

Belgian police launched a manhunt in a Brussels neighborhood on Tuesday after at least one gunman opened fire on officers during an anti-terror raid linked to last year’s Paris attacks, officials said. Three police officers were slightly injured during the operation and reports said a gunman was killed.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that “a team composed of Belgian and French police came under fire, apparently from assault weapons, during a raid.”

Two hours after the first shots were fired, a big swath of the Forest neighborhood was in lockdown as special police units in body armor and balaclava hoods moved in, several with their guns drawn. A helicopter was hovering overhead to patrol the area as police were still hunting for at least one suspect.

“Two individuals, apparently barricaded themselves inside a home,” Forest Mayor Marc-Jean Ghyssels told local media.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the two people escaped, or whether police were searching for more people.

A police official, who requested anonymity because the operation was still ongoing, also said it wasn’t clear if the police officers were struck by bullets or injured in another way.

Another official said that the anti-terror raid in the Forest neighborhood was linked to the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that killed 130 people.

The lockdown in the area continued more than an hour after the first shots were fired and is close to Molenbeek, home to several people involved in the Paris attacks.

Police sealed off a wide perimeter around the area where the shots were heard to keep the many bystanders at a safe distance. A helicopter was hovering overhead to patrol the area as police were still looking for at least one suspect. Several hundred spectators were trying to get a closer look at the operation in the multicultural neighborhood, which has a big Audi car factory nearby. Audi asked its personnel to stay at the plant while the police raid was going on.

Several hooded officers wearing body armor milled around the neighborhood and ambulances were on standby.

Four months on, Belgian police and magistrates have been still piecing together the role Belgian nationals played in aiding the Paris attackers, as well as trying to track down missing suspects including international fugitive Salah Abdeslam, whose brother, Brahim, was one of the suicide bombers.

The suspected ringleader of the attacks was a Brussels resident, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. Another attacker, Bilal Hadfi, was said to have lived for a time in the Forest neighborhood.

Belgian authorities have stepped up their counterterror efforts since a lone gunman killed four people at the Brussels Jewish museum in May 2014. The small Western European country has also been prime recruiting ground for the Islamic State group, and officials freely acknowledge their concerns about what radicalized recruits might do after returning home from the battlefields of Syria or Iraq.

Tuesday’s raid was a reminder of the anxious days the Belgian capital lived through in November and December, when the subway and schools were closed for a time, and the New Year’s Eve fireworks display was canceled because of the threat of extremist violence.

Police shot dead one suspect on Tuesday during the major Belgian-French anti-terror operation in Brussels linked to the Paris attacks, after gunmen opened fire and wounded four officers.

The fatality had not been identified but prosecutors said it was not Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the November Paris massacre that killed 130 people, and who fled to Brussels after the attacks.

Armed police came under fire as they carried out a search on a property in the Forest suburb in the south of the Belgian capital, sparking a series of gun battles in which one suspect was killed, prosecutors said.

“Police were fired at,” Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, told AFP, adding that the search was “linked to the Paris attacks investigation.”

“A body was found during a search of a house … his identity has not been established yet but whatever the case, it is not Salah Abdeslam,” Van Der Sypt was later quoted as saying by the Belga news agency.

Three Belgian police officers were wounded by gunfire during the initial search of the property, while a fourth was hit by gunfire during the huge police mobilization afterward.

Dozens of security forces in balaclavas armed with submachine guns cordoned off the scene, while police vehicles with flashing lights rushed into the search area, AFP reporters said.

A police helicopter hovered overhead checking reports that other suspects might have escaped over the roofs.

The local mayor said that two people were believed to be holed up in a house, but as the operation appeared to be winding down, authorities later only mentioned the suspect who was killed, without saying if they were searching for more.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed earlier that French police were also involved and said the attackers used assault rifles.

“A team made up of Belgian and French police came under fire, apparently from assault weapons, during a raid,” he said after arriving in the Cote d’Ivoire capital following a weekend shooting rampage by jihadis there that killed 18.

People in two schools and two nurseries near the scene were asked to remain indoors and the security cordon around the area was extended, the local mayor’s office said.

Parents at the cordon line became increasingly distressed as they were unable to get to their children, before they were eventually let out one by one, accompanied by armed police.

Police also started letting people back into their homes.

The incident took place across the street from an Audi auto factory and the train lines leading to the Gare du Midi railway station from where Eurostar trains run to London and Thalys trains to Paris.

Two weeks after the Paris attacks Brussels was put on five days of lockdown with authorities warning of an imminent threat of violence amid an ongoing manhunt for Abdeslam.

Soldiers are still on guard at key areas, including train stations and EU institutions, with Belgium remaining on its second-highest terror alert.

Abdeslam, 26, who is believed to have played a key role in organizing the Paris attacks, fled across the border to Belgium hours after the killings in the French capital and is now one of the most wanted men in Europe.

A French police source said the operation was “not targeting Salah Abdeslam” but was “aimed at people connected to one or several of the 11 Belgians who have been charged.”

Since mid-November, 11 people have been arrested and charged in Belgium in connection with the killings and eight are still in detention.

Abdeslam 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.

Belgian authorities found two other properties used by the attackers before the Paris massacres — a flat in the industrial town of Charleroi and a house in the rural village of Auvelais near the French border.

The suspect killed Tuesday during a major Belgian-French anti-terror operation in Brussels was not Salah Abdeslam, a key figure in the Paris attacks, the federal prosecutor’s office said.

“A body was found during a search of a house … his identity has not been established yet but whatever the case, it is not Salah Abdeslam,” the Belga news agency quoted Eric Van Der Sypt, the spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, as saying.