Law enforcement authorities in Paris said they had broken up a terror cell that was preparing to act imminently in a raid in the Saint-Denis suburb before dawn on Wednesday. Authorities said they are working to determine the identities of at least seven alleged terrorists arrested and at least two killed in the raid.
The raid began with France’s anti-terrorism police storming the neighborhood, hunting for the suspected mastermind behind last Friday’s Paris attacks. With nerves already jangled by last week’s violence, which killed 129 people, Parisians awoke on Wednesday to find the northern outskirts of their city sounding like a war zone.
Here is what we know so far about Wednesday’s events:
- One woman blew herself up and another man was killed in the hail of gunfire and explosives during the raid. Paris prosecutor François Molins said Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the 27-year-old Belgian suspected of being the operational commander behind the Paris attacks, on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), was not among those arrested. It remains unclear whether he was killed. ISIS claimed responsibility for the worst attack on French soil since World War II, and had trumpeted Abaaoud as one of its leading lights among its Western recruits. Until early Wednesday, French sources had said that Abaaoud, who came from the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, was likely in Syria.
- The SWAT squads, known by the French initials RAID, began their operation at 4:20 a.m.local time, when they closed in on a building down a small side street in the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris, not far from the Stade de France, a target of the recent attacks.
- As the police closed in on the apartment in the modest-income neighborhood, a woman inside detonated a suicide vest, according to the Molins.
- A second person died in a hail of “grenades and other projectiles,” according to Molins, who described the man as a “terrorist.”
- French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters in Saint-Denis that seven people have been arrested, three inside the apartment, two who were hidden under rubble and two others – the landlord of the property and his friend.
- Police sources told French reporters that one target of the raid had been French President Francois Hollande said on television after the raids that his country was “at war” against terrorism by ISIS and that he wanted to build a “large coalition” to destroy the group. He later said that any places where people are “glorifying” terrorism will be closed.
- Police sources told BFMTV that police had placed a woman under surveillance “several days ago” who they thought might be sheltering Abaaoud. The prosecutor Molins said they could not confirm if Abaaoud was in the apartment.
- A man from the targeted building told BFMTV that that he had allowed two people who “came from Belgium” to sleep in his apartment “for a day or two,” on the request of his friend. When he told his friend there was no mattress for them, he said it was not a problem, since they “just wanted water and to pray. I was asked to do a favor. I did a favor. I did not know they were terrorists… I learned like you.”
- Five police officers were lightly injured and ambulances tended to them in a nearby street.
- One resident told Le Monde newspaper that he was jolted awake to the sounds of rapid gunfire, with police cars and fire trucks outside and helicopters overhead. “We knew it was terrorists trying to shoot at the police. It went on for half an hour,” he said.
- Another resident told French television that she was woken by a huge explosion, immediately followed by police bursting into her apartment and telling her to get down on the ground. Police fired 5,000 rounds during a raid that lasted more than an hour, Molins said.
- Authorities confirmed that a police dog named Diesel was killed by terrorists:
Saint-Denis is just 4 miles from the Le Bourget district, where about 100 heads of state, including President Barack Obama, are due to meet on Nov. 30, for the 11-day international climate change negotiations, known as the COP 21. For days, Hollande has said he is determined to continue with the event—the biggest in France in many years—as a show of global “solidarity” against terrorism.
Saint-Denis is a near suburb on the outer edge of the freeway encircling Paris’s 20 districts. Its 40,000 residents comprise a large number of Muslims, many born in the Paris area, and in recent years it has undergone an economic revival. Abandoned factory areas were transformed into television and movie studios, and it is the site of major hi-tech conferences. It is also a short distance from the national stadium, the Stade de France, where three suicide bombers blew themselves up during a France-Germany soccer match last Friday, which Hollande was attending with the German Foreign Minister and families of the Germanwings plane crash earlier this year.
France extended its national state of emergency, imposed on the weekend, for the next three months, allowing security forces to conduct sweeps and crackdowns on any people or organizations suspected of being a “threat to public order,” government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said on Wednesday.
The deadly raid was one of 414 since Friday’s attacks. The Interior Ministry said that 25 people were arrested in overnight raids by police across the country to make a total of 64, and 34 weapons were seized.