November 21, 2015 / 7:04 PM / in 2 years

French police release seven people picked up during raid last week

PARIS (Reuters) - French police have released seven of the eight people rounded up when they raided a flat last Wednesday where the suspected mastermind of the Paris attacks was hiding, a judicial source said.

A police officer stands guard at Place de la Republique a week after a series of deadly attacks in the French capital, in Paris, France, November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Islamic State jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, one of the group’s most high-profile European recruits, died during the police assault along with a woman believed to be his cousin and a third person yet to be identified.

During the raid, police took in eight people for questioning, five from inside the building in the northern St. Denis suburb and three from outside, including a man who said he was in charge of the property and is still being held.

A source close to the investigation said the five from inside who have been freed were believed just to be squatters without proper identity papers, while a man and a woman picked up outside have also been released.

France has launched a massive investigation to get to the bottom of exactly who was behind the massacres that killed 130 people in Paris last Friday and stunned a nation still raw from militant attacks in the capital in January.

Investigators believe Abaaoud, a Moroccan-born Belgian who had fought for Islamic State in Syria, was the mastermind behind the shootings and bombings at the national soccer stadium, a famous concert venue and several bars and restaurants.

European governments thought he was still in Syria until a tip-off from Morocco that he was in France at the time of the attacks, the worst in the country since World War II.

Abaaoud was caught on camera in the east of Paris after the initial wave of shootings, heading into a metro station not far from an abandoned black Seat Leon which had three AK47 assault rifles, five full ammunition clips and 11 empty clips inside.

Two sources involved in the investigation said on Saturday his fingerprints were on one of the weapons but it was not clear whether he took part in the shootings, or had just handled the rifle. The fingerprints of Brahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up after attacking a cafe, were on another of the AK47s.

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Police tracked Abaaoud to the apartment in St. Denis by following Hasna Aitboulahcen, a woman who may have been his cousin and whose phone was being tapped as part of a drugs investigation.

Officials reported that she had blown herself up during the raid, but a source close to the investigation said on Friday that someone else in the flat had used the explosive vest.

French media reported on Saturday that Aitboulahcen may not even have been involved in the plot, only being asked by Abaaoud to find a hideout as a last resort.

Investigators are still trying to identify the remains of the third person in the flat, as well as two men who came through Greece in October and blew themselves up outside the stadium while the French soccer team was playing Germany.

Police across Europe are also hunting Salah Abdeslam who made it to Belgium from France in a VW Golf the day after the attacks, despite being stopped by French police along the way.

In response to the Paris attacks, French police have carried out nightly raids across the country.

Local authorities in Sens, about 130 km southeast of Paris, imposed a curfew on Friday from 10 p.m. (2100 GMT) to 6 a.m. in one part of the town - the first curfew in France since a state of emergency was announced the day after the attacks.

The curfew for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights came after police found weapons and fake identity cards during raids in the area and other parts of the Yonne department.

A ban on demonstrations in the Paris region under the state of emergency was also extended on Saturday until Nov. 30.

An opinion poll on Saturday showed that President Francois Hollande, the most unpopular French leader since the start of the Fifth Republic in 1958, got an eight-point popularity boost after the attacks.

Thirty-three percent of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of Hollande, his highest rating since Jan. 14, a week after attacks on a satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket cost 17 lives.

Additional reporting by Chine Labbe and Nicolas Bertin; writing by David Clarke; editing by Digby Lidstone

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