BRUSSELS – Police raiding an apartment building captured Europe’s most wanted fugitive Friday, arresting the prime suspect in last year’s deadly Paris attacks in the same Brussels neighborhood where he grew up.
Hours later, the French president said more people were involved in the attacks than previously thought and predicted more arrests would follow.
Salah Abdeslam, 26, is a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader of the attacks and is suspected of driving a car carrying a group of gunmen who took part in the shootings.
After the bloodbath, he slipped through a police dragnet to return to Brussels and eluded capture for four months, despite being the target of an international manhunt. He was believed to have slipped through police fingers at least once, possibly twice. Belgian authorities locked down their capital for several days but failed to find him.
His capture brought instant relief to police and ordinary people in France and Belgium who had been looking over their shoulder for Abdeslam since Nov. 13, when Islamic extremist attackers fanned out across the French capital and killed 130 people at a rock concert, the national stadium and cafes. It was France’s deadliest attack in decades.
Abdeslam and four other suspects were detained in the raid, including three members of a family that sheltered him. Abdeslam was shot in the leg, officials said.
France’s BFM television broadcast images of police tugging a man with a white hooded sweatshirt toward a police car, as he dragged his left leg as if it were injured.
Abdeslam was not armed but did not immediately obey orders when confronted by police, prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said.
It was possible that Abdeslam had spent days, weeks or months in the apartment, according to Van der Sypt, who said the investigation would continue day and night.
French President Francois Hollande said authorities will need to detain anyone who aided the attacks in any way. He said those people are much more numerous than authorities had believed and that the French government would seek to have Abdeslam extradited.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called Friday’s arrests a success in the “fight against terrorism.”
President Barack Obama congratulated the leaders of Belgium and France over the arrest, in phone calls with both men, the White House said in a statement.
Two other people believed linked to the attacks were still being sought, including fellow Molenbeek resident Mohamed Abrini and a man known under the alias of Soufiane Kayal.
Friday’s capture of Abdeslam came after Belgian authorities said they found his fingerprints in an apartment raided earlier this week in another Brussels neighborhood.
In that raid, a man believed to have been an accomplice of Abdeslam – Mohamed Belkaid – was shot dead, Belgian prosecutors said. But two men escaped from the apartment, one of whom appears to have been Abdeslam.
Most of the Paris attackers died on the night of the attacks, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up. Brahim Abdeslam was buried in the area Thursday.
At one point during Friday’s police operation, a phalanx of officers in camouflage, masks and riot helmets marched through the neighborhood with guns and automatic weapons drawn, escorting people out of buildings.
Abdeslam’s exact role in the attacks is not entirely clear. The car he drove was abandoned in northern Paris, and his mobile phone and an explosive vest he had apparently used were later found in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission, either ditching a malfunctioning vest or fleeing in fear.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which Belgian nationals played key roles.
On Tuesday, a joint team of Belgian and French police showed up to search a residence in the Forest area of Brussels in connection with the Paris investigation. They were unexpectedly fired upon by at least two people inside. Four officers were slightly wounded.
An occupant of the residence was shot dead by a police sniper as he prepared to open fire on police from a window. Police identified him as Belkaid, 35, an Algerian national living illegally in Belgium.
A Kalashnikov assault rifle was found by his body, as well as a book on Salafism, an ultraconservative strain of Islam. Elsewhere in the apartment, police found an Islamic State banner as well as 11 Kalashnikov loaders and a large quantity of ammunition, the prosecutor said.
Belgian authorities initially said Belkaid had no known background in radical Islamic activities. But Friday afternoon, prosecutors issued a statement saying he was “most probably” an accomplice of Abdeslam who had been using a fake Belgian ID card in the name of Samir Bouzid.
A man using that ID card was one of the two men seen with Abdeslam in a rental car on the Hungarian-Austrian border in September.
Four days after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the same false ID card was used to transfer 750 euros ($847) to Hasna Ait Boulahcen, cousin of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader. Both Ait Boulahcen and Abaaoud died afterward in a police siege.
In January, Belgian authorities said one of Abdeslam’s fingerprints was found alongside homemade suicide bomb belts at an apartment in another area of Brussels. Belgian prosecutors said it wasn’t known whether he had been at the address in the Schaerbeek district before or after the Paris attacks, or how long he had spent there.
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