Huge Brussels manhunt after Paris attacks raid shootout

15th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Belgian and French police launched a huge manhunt for two suspects in Brussels on Monday after gunmen opened fire, wounding three officers, during a joint anti-terror operation linked to the Paris attacks.

Heavily armed police had surrounded a building at the scene in the Forest district in south Brussels after the shootout, and an AFP photographer said there was a fresh burst of gunfire nearly two hours after the initial shots.

But Salah Abdeslam -- a key suspect in the November Paris massacre which killed 130 people and who fled to Brussels after the attacks -- was not the target of the Brussels search, sources said.

"Police were fired at," Eric Van Der Sypt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, told AFP, adding that the search was "linked to the Paris attacks investigation".

Three Belgian police officers were wounded in the initial shootout with one in a serious condition after being hit in the ear and head, several Belgian media outlets reported.

Dozens of armed police in balaclavas armed with submachine guns cordoned off the scene, while police vehicles with flashing lights rushed back and forth, AFP reporters said.

- 'Assault weapons' -

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed that French police were also involved and said the attackers used assault rifles, apparently confirming reports that said the gunmen fired Kalashnikovs.

"A team made up of Belgian and French police came under fire, apparently from assault weapons, during a raid," he said after arriving in the Ivory Coast capital following a weekend shooting rampage by jihadists there that killed 18.

"I'm being prudent because the operation is ongoing and I won't make any other comment than to confirm that this did take place," he told a news conference.

Local mayor Marc-Jean Ghyssels told reporters at the scene in Brussels that "two people are holed up in a building" at the scene, while Belgian media reported that two suspects were on the run.

Witnesses reported an initial heavy exchange of fire that lasted several minutes followed by another, while an AFP photographer reported a third burst of gunfire later on.

People in two schools and two nurseries near the scene were asked to remain indoors and the security cordon around the area was extended, the local mayor's office said.

The incident took place across the street from an Audi auto factory and the train lines leading to the Gare du Midi railway station where Eurostar trains to London and Thalys trains to Paris run from.

Two weeks after the Paris attacks Brussels was put on five days of lockdown with authorities warning of an imminent threat of violence amid an ongoing manhunt for Abdeslam.

- Abdeslam 'not targeted' -

Abdeslam, 26, who is believed to have played a key role in organising the Paris attacks, fled across the border to Belgium hours after the killings in the French capital and is now one of the most wanted men in Europe.

But a French police source said that Abdeslam was not the target.

"The operation was not targeting Salah Abdeslam. It was aimed at people connected to one or several of the 11 Belgians who have been charged," the source told AFP.

Since mid-November, 11 people have been arrested and charged in Belgium in connection with the killings and eight are still in detention.

Abdeslam and his associate Mohamed Abrini, both from the Molenbeek area of Brussels, are still at large.

Abdeslam was reportedly holed up in an apartment in the Schaerbeek district in north Brussels for three weeks after the Paris attacks.

In January, Belgian authorities said they had found two apartments and a house used by Abdeslam and other suspects in the run up to the attacks.

A fingerprint belonging to Abdeslam was found in the apartment along with traces of explosives, possible suicide belts and a drawing of a person wearing a large belt.

Authorities also found DNA traces from Bilal Hadfi, another of the attackers.

The other premises were a flat in Charleroi -- a town south of the capital Brussels where a major airport is located, as well as a house in the rural village of Auvelais near the French border.

arp-mad/dk/bmm/jm


© 2016 AFP

0 Comments To This Article