BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The most-wanted fugitive from November’s Paris attacks was arrested after a shootout with police in Brussels on Friday, Belgium’s prime minister said.
Charles Michel described the capture of 26-year-old French suspect Salah Abdeslam and two others as “a very important result in the battle for democracy”. French President Francois Hollande said he was confident they had links to Syria and to Islamic State which claimed the attacks that killed 130 people.
“The threat level is very high,” said Hollande, who was in Brussels for an EU summit. He added that it was now clear many more people had been involved in the Paris attacks on a sports stadium, bars and cafes and concert hall than had been realized.
Michel said Abdeslam was wounded — local media said he was shot in the leg — in the operation launched as EU leaders met on the other side of the city to discuss Europe’s migration crisis. U.S. President Barack Obama sent his congratulations.
Television footage showed armed security forces dragging a man with a sack on his head out of a building and into a car.
“We got him,” Belgian government minister Theo Francken said on Twitter.
Hollande said France wanted to extradite Abdeslam, who was born and raised in Brussels to a Moroccan immigrant family, and hoped he would yield more clarity about an operation mounted by Syria-based Islamic State in which all the known attackers died.
Several bursts of gunfire rang out earlier in the capital’s Molenbeek area – Abdeslam’s home neighborhood and the scene of past investigations into the Paris attacks – and police officers surrounded an apartment block there from around 4 p.m. (1500 GMT).
Two explosions were heard after the arrest, though it was unclear whether they were part of a new operation or the clear-up. Some four hours later, the main police presence had stood down but crime scene investigators were still at work.
There had long been speculation about whether Abdeslam had stayed in Belgium or managed to flee to Syria. Security services will be seeking information from Abdeslam on Islamic State plans and structures, his contacts in Europe and Syria and support networks and finance.
Hollande said he was sure Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up at a Parisian cafe on Nov. 13, had also been in the city that night and had helped plan the attack.
Belgian police had found fingerprints belonging to Abdeslam at the scene of an apartment raided on Tuesday, prosecutors said.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office also said an Algerian killed during that earlier operation was probably one of the people French and Belgian investigators were seeking in relation to the attacks in Paris.
Public broadcaster RTBF said it had information that Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up in Paris, was “more than likely” one of two men who police had said evaded capture at the scene before a sniper shot dead 35-year-old Belkaid as he aimed a Kalashnikov.
It said Belkaid was the man known to police as Samir Bouzid who has been sought since December when police issued CCTV pictures of him wiring cash from Brussels two days after the Paris attacks to a woman who was then killed in a shootout with police in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.
She was a cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who had fought in Syria and is suspected of being a prime organizer of the attacks in which 130 people were killed. Both died in the apartment in St. Denis on Nov. 18.
France’s BFM television said the fingerprints were found on a glass in the apartment, where four police officers, including a Frenchwoman, were wounded when a hail of automatic gunfire hit them through the front door as they arrived for what officials said they had expected to be a relatively routine search.
Abdeslam’s elder brother was among the suicide bombers who killed themselves in Paris. The younger Abdeslam was driven back to Brussels from Paris hours later.
Belgian authorities are holding 10 people suspected of involvement with him, but there had been no report of the fugitive himself being sighted.
Investigators believe much of the planning and preparation for the November bombing and shooting rampage in Paris was conducted in Brussels by young French and Belgian nationals, some of whom fought in Syria for Islamic State.
The attack strained relations between Brussels and Paris, with French officials suggesting Belgium was lax in monitoring the activities of hundreds of militants returned from Syria.
Hollande and Michel took pains to exchange mutual compliments to their security services and cross-border cooperation.
Brussels, headquarters of the European Union as well as Western military alliance NATO, was entirely locked down for days after the Paris attacks for fear of a major incident there. Brussels has maintained a high state of security alert since then, with military patrols a regular sight.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio and Jan Strupczewski; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Alastair Macdonald)