Police fail to catch key Paris suspect in Brussels raid
BRUSSELS, Belgium (UPDATED) – Belgian police launched a major raid in Brussels targeting fugitive Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam on Monday, November 16, but the operation ended without any arrests, prosecutors told Agence France-Presse.
Police meanwhile freed one of his brothers without charge, following his arrest at the weekend in the wake of the attacks in which a third Abdeslam brother took part as a suicide bomber, officials said.
Dozens of officers in balclavas and carrying submachineguns surrounded a house in the run-down immigrant area of Molenbeek in western Brussels, which is increasingly under scrutiny as a hotbed of European militancy.
"The operation is over and the result is negative. No one was arrested," spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt told AFP. The mayor of Molenbeek district where the raid took place also confirmed it was over.
Van Der Sypt had earlier confirmed that the raid targeted Salah Abdeslam -- a 26-year-old former Brussels tram worker who is the subject of an international arrest warrant by French police -- without saying whether he was in the house.
His brother Mohamed Abdeslam was released "without being charged" by Belgian authorities on Monday along with four other suspects who were among seven people arrested in the wake of the carnage in the French capital, Van Der Sypt said.
Two remain in custody.
"There was not the slightest charge, there is nothing against him," Mohamed's lawyer Nathalie Gallant told AFP.
"He had an alibi. On Friday evening he was with a friend in Liege (eastern Belgian city) where they were working on a project renovating a bar," she said, adding that the friend's testimony and telephone records showed that he was not in Paris on Friday.
"He has had no contact with his brothers in recent days," she added.
Their brother Brahim Abdeselam was one of the suicide attackers who caused carnage in Paris, blowing himself up outside a bar on Boulevard Voltaire.
'Links' to ISIS cell
A Belgian newspaper said that Brahim Abdeslam had links to a Belgian Islamic State (ISIS) militant believed to be the mastermind of a jihadist cell dismantled in January.
His name appears in several police files alongside leading militant Abdelhamid Abaaoud relating to criminal cases in 2010 and 2011, Flemish-language newspaper De Standaard reported.
"Investigators see a link with Verviers," it said, referring to an eastern Belgian town where police shot dead two militants in January and broke up a cell aiming to kill Belgian police officers in the streets days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
Abaaoud -- a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent who allegedly led the group and had fought with the Islamic State group in Syria -- remains at large. He has claimed in the IS English-language magazine Dabiq to have rejoined the group in Syria.
He also lived in Molenbeek.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Monday that the authorities would crack down on militancy in Molenbeek and other districts.
"I have asked the security services to give us plans very quickly, for Molenbeek but also other areas, so that we can have a much more organized approach to the fight against radicalism," he told RTL radio.
Molenbeek also home to one of the 2004 Madrid train bombers and the main suspect in the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels, while the perpetrator of the foiled attack in August on the Amsterdam-Paris train stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding in Brussels. – Danny Kemp, Lachlan Carmichael, AFP/Rappler.com
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