Pre-dawn raid in Paris suburb unearths new 'jihadist' cell, police say

Massive firefight leaves two dead, but fate of alleged planner of Friday's attacks remains unclear

Heavily armed French police stormed an apartment in northern Paris on Wednesday in the hunt for suspects behind last week’s deadly attacks, resulting in the death of at least two people believed to be part of another cell planning new attacks on the capital’s financial district — stoking fears that France could be the target of more attacks.

The raid, which resulted in the arrests of eight people, targeted 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected planner of Friday’s attacks that left 129 people dead. Over 100 police officers fired 5,000 rounds in the hours-long raid that left two dead, including a woman who exploded an explosives belt, according to prosecutor François Molins. But Abaaoud’s fate remained unclear hours after the raid.

Molins said that neither Abaaoud, a Belgian who has fought for ISIL, nor Salah Abdelsam, another alleged fugitive attacker, were among those arrested.

“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 people dead," Molins told reporters. “A new team of terrorists has been neutralized and everything suggests that the commando team could have taken action.”

Molins said the raid was the result of information gleaned from tapped telephone conversations and witness accounts, which indicated that Abaaoud might be holed up in the apartment in the Saint-Denis suburb in northern Paris.

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Abaaoud was believed to be in Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but bragged in ISIL propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.

Speaking at the scene of Wednesday's raid, Molins said the operation resulted in the death of “another terrorist who was found at the end of the operation who was hit by projectiles and grenades.”

He said a man who had provided the apartment was among those arrested. Police at the scene were seen escorting away one man naked from the waist down and another wrapped in a gold emergency blanket.

“As things stand, it is impossible to give you the identities of the people detained, which are being verified,” said Molins.

French President Francois Hollande held an emergency meeting with senior ministers at the Elysee Palace to monitor the raid. Afterward, during a gathering of French mayors in Paris, Hollande confirmed that France will keep its committment to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees in the next few years. 

Saint-Denis residents on Wednesday said an explosion shook the neighborhood shortly after 4 a.m.

"We guessed it was linked to Friday night," said Yves Steux, barman at L'Escargot restaurant 250 yards 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 neighborhood, said a second large explosion was followed by "two more explosions. There was an hour of gunfire."

Another witness, Amine Guizani, said he heard the sound of 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."

Investigators have identified 27-year-old Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the chief architect of Friday's attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and injured 350 others, dozens of them critically.

A U.S. official briefed on intelligence matters said Abaaoud was a key figure in an ISIL external operations cell that U.S. intelligence agencies have been tracking for several months.

In Saint-Denis on Wednesday, police cordoned off the area near the Stade de France national stadium, including a pedestrian zone lined with shops and 19th-century apartment buildings. Riot police cleared people from the streets, pointing guns at curious residents to move them off the roads.

French media reported that some 15,000 area residents were prohibited from leaving their homes during the siege. Areas schools were closed and scheduled to reopen on Thursday.

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 youths.

Seven attackers died in Friday's attacks, which targeted several bars and restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall, as well as Stade de France. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the carnage.

Police had said before the raids that they were hunting for two fugitives suspected of taking part as well as any accomplices. That would bring the number of attackers to at least nine.

French authorities had previously said that at least eight people were directly involved in the bloodshed: seven who died in the attacks and one who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium.

However, there have been gaps in officials' public statements, which have never fully disclosed how many attackers took part in the deadly rampage.

On Tuesday, officials told The Associated Press they now believe at least one other attacker was involved and they were working to identify and track down that suspect. Surveillance video obtained by the AP also indicated that a team of three attackers carried out the shootings at one of the cafes. The video was among evidence authorities used in concluding that at least one other attacker was at large, the French officials indicated.

The brief clip shows two black-clad gunmen with automatic weapons calmly firing on the bar then returning toward a waiting car, whose driver was maneuvering behind them. Authorities believe the car is the same black SEAT-make vehicle that was found Saturday with three Kalashnikovs inside.

Police have identified one subject of their manhunt as Salah Abdeslam, whom French police accidentally permitted to cross into Belgium on Saturday. One of his brothers, Brahim, blew himself up in Paris.

On Wednesday, Belgian media reported that the Abdeslam brothers were interrogated by Belgian police before the Paris attacks but they were released because “they did not show signs of possible menace,” according to a police official cited by the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.

Brahim Abdeslam attempted to travel to Syria but only made it to Turkey, said Eric Van Der Sypt, a federal prosecutor’s spokesman.

“We knew that they were radicalized and could make their way to Syria but they did not show signs of possible threat,” said Van Der Sypt. “Even if we had warned France about them, I doubt that we could have detained them.”

In a sign that ISIL supporters were active elsewhere in France, a Jewish teacher was stabbed in the southern French port of Marseilles by three people professing solidarity with the group, prosecutors said.

One of the three wore an ISIL T-shirt while another attacker showed a picture on his mobile telephone of Mohamed Merah, a homegrown fighter who killed seven people in attacks in southern France in 2012. The Marseilles teacher's life was not in danger.

In other developments, French fighter jets attacked ISIL targets in Syria for a third night. The French defense ministry said 10 jets had hit two ISIL command centers in the group's de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria.

The Paris attacks have galvanized international determination to confront ISIL in Syria and Iraq, bringing France, Russia and the United States closer to an alliance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the missile cruiser Moskva, currently in the Mediterranean, to start cooperating with the French military on operations in Syria.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said a cease-fire between Syria's government and the opposition could be just weeks away. He described it as potentially a "gigantic step" toward deeper international cooperation against ISIL.

France — and the rest of Europe — remain on edge four days after the attacks. Two Air France flights bound for Paris from the U.S. were diverted Tuesday night — one to Salt Lake City and one to Halifax — because of anonymous threats received after they had taken off. Both were inspected and cleared to resume their journeys.

In the German city of Hannover, a soccer game between Germany and the Netherlands on Tuesday was canceled at the last minute and the stadium evacuated by police because of a bomb threat.

Lower Saxony state Interior Minister Boris Pistorius said the match was called off after "vague" information that solidified late in the day. No arrests have been made and no explosives found. Pistorius said this may be because the plot was called off after the game was canceled.

"We won't know what would have happened if we didn't cancel it," he said.

With The Associated Press

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