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Belgian authorities seek 'entourage' linked to Paris suicide bomber

Police launched raids in Brussels as French officials say fate of attacks' mastermind remains unclear

Authorities in Belgium on Thursday morning launched six raids in the Brussels region linked to Paris suicide bomber Bilal Hadfi.

An official in the Belgian federal prosecutor's office said that the raids took place in Molenbeek and other areas of Brussels. The raids centered on "his entourage," the official said.

The raids came, almost a week after the attacks in Paris that killed 129 people and wounded more than 350, and as the French Interior Ministry and Paris prosecutor's office said it remains unclear whether the suspected mastermind of last week's Paris attacks has been killed or is still at large.

Officials in each agency said Thursday that authorities are working on determining whether 27-year-old Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, identified as the mastermind behind the attacks, was among those killed in a chaotic and bloody raid on an apartment in a Paris suburb Wednesday. The officials were not authorized to be publicly named speaking about an ongoing investigation.

Belgian prosecutors said six addresses were searched in various districts across the Belgian capital as part of an existing investigation opened at the start of the year into Hafdi, who blew himself up near the Stade de France on Friday.

One person was detained in another raid in northern Brussels related to the Paris attacks, prosecutors added.

Earlier on Thursday, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said he wants to amend the constitution to extend the length of time terror suspects can be held by police without charge.

Michel pledged to use changes to the constitution to extend preventive detention times for suspects from 24 hours to 72 hours.

He also affirmed that Belgium would move forward alone on a system of airline passenger information sharing that European Union nations have been incapable of agreeing in four years.

"All democratic forces have to work together to strengthen our security," Michel told lawmakers.

He also rejected criticism over the role security services played before the Paris attacks, which French authorities say were prepared and organised in Belgium.

"I do not accept the criticisms which is aimed at denigrating the work of our security services," Michel said in a speech to parliament.

He added his country  $427 million would be earmarked to boost the security forces, and said special attention would be paid to eradicating messages of hate inspiring young people to fight in places like Syria and Iraq, or back at home later in Europe.

"For jihadis who return, their place is in prison," said Michel.

Some 500 people are on Belgium's list of "radicalized" people, and Michel said he would introduce a system for people considered a threat that would "impose the wearing of an electronic bracelet."

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French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Thursday morning presented a bill extending the state of emergency declared after Friday's attacks for another three months to the lower house of Parliament on Thursday. It goes to the upper house Friday.

Valls said "terrorism hit France, not because of what it is doing in Iraq and Syria ... but for what it is."

He added, "we know that there could also be a risk of chemical or biological weapons."

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, speaking on France-Inter radio Thursday, said the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) "is a monster. But if all the countries in the world aren't capable of fighting against 30,000 people (ISIL members), it's incomprehensible."

The group claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks on a rock concert, Parisian cafes and France's national stadium.

French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said Thursday that French planes have dropped about 60 bombs on six sites, and all 35 targets were ISIL command centers or training sites. He told reporters the strikes were aimed at weakening and disorganizing the group. 

France, taking part in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, sharply increased its airstrikes in Syria after Friday's attacks, which killed at least 129.

The Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier left Wednesday for the eastern Mediterranean, tripling France's airborne forces in the fight against ISIL.

In a vote of confidence in France, the White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama still plans to travel to Paris for the upcoming climate talks.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the U.S. had very close intelligence relationship with French security officials, and has been actively sharing intelligence with France since the attacks last week.

Rhodes says the French will be the ones to make determinations about how to provide security for the climate summit. Obama is currently scheduled to be in Paris on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. It's unclear whether the dates will be extended or adjusted in light of the attacks.

In Italy, Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told RAI state broadcaster on Thursday that Italian law enforcement had been searching since Wednesday for five people flagged by the FBI.

The U.S. State Department issued a warning Wednesday that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Milan's cathedral and La Scala opera house, as well as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theaters and hotels had been identified as "potential targets."

Gentiloni added that the U.S. alert didn't warn people to stay away from Italy. He said: "We cannot be prisoners of worry."

On Wednesday, more than 100 heavily armed French police stormed an apartment in northern Paris 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 targeted Abaaoud. Two people died in the raid, but Abaaoud’s fate remained unclear. However, Molins told reporters, “A new team of terrorists has been neutralized and everything suggests that the commando team could have taken action.”

Abaaoud was believed to be in Syria after a January police raid in Belgium.

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.

Police had said before the Wednesday raids in Saint-Denis 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.

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.”

On Wednesday, 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.

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.

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

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Belgium, Europe, France, Paris

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