A woman suicide bomber blew herself up and another militant died on Wednesday when police raided an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis seeking suspects in last week’s attacks in the French capital.
Three sources told Reuters the raid stopped a cell that had been planning an attack on Paris’s business district, La Defense, after coordinated bombings and shootings killed 129 across the city.
Officials said police had been hunting Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian militant accused of masterminding the Nov. 13 carnage, but more than nine hours after the launch of the pre-dawn raid it was still unclear if they had found him.
Seven people were arrested in the operation, which started with a barrage of gunfire, including three people who were pulled from the apartment, officials said.
“It is impossible to tell you who was arrested. We are in the process of verifying that. Everything will be done to determine who is who,” Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said at the end of the operation.
Molins said the assault was ordered after phone taps and surveillance operations led police to believe that Abaaoud might have been in St. Denis, near to the soccer stadium which was site of one of the attacks that hit Paris last week.
Investigators believe the attacks — the worst atrocity in France since World War Two — was set in motion from Syria, with cells in neighboring Belgium organizing the mayhem.
Local residents spoke of their fear and panic as the shooting started in St. Denis just before 4.30 a.m. (0330 GMT).
“We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake,” said Sabrine, a downstairs neighbor from the apartment that was raided.
She told Europe 1 radio that she heard the people above her talking to each other, running around and reloading their guns.
Another local, Sanoko Abdulai, said that as the operation gathered pace, a young woman detonated an explosion.
“She had a bomb, that’s for sure. The police didn’t kill her, she blew herself up…,” he told Reuters, without giving details. Three police officers and a passerby were injured in the assault. A police dog was also killed.
Islamic State, which controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, saying they were in retaliation for French air raids against their positions over the past year.
France has called for a global coalition to defeat the radicals and has launched three large air strikes on Raqqa — the de-facto Islamic State capital in northern Syria.
Russia has also targeted the city in retribution for the downing of a Russian airliner last month that killed 224 people.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Wednesday the bombardments have killed at least 33 Islamic State militants over the past three days.
Citing activists, the Observatory said Islamic State members and dozens of families of senior members had started fleeing Raqqa to relocate to Mosul in neighboring Iraq.
French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a man who was fingerprinted in Greece last month after arriving in the country via Turkey with a boatload of refugees fleeing the Syria war.
Police believe two men directly involved in the assault subsequently escaped, including Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is accused of having played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.
French authorities said on Wednesday they had identified all the Nov. 13 victims. They came from 17 different countries, many of them young people out enjoying themselves at bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a soccer stadium.
Until Wednesday morning, officials had said Abaaoud was in Syria. He grew up in Brussels, but media said he moved to Syria in 2014 to fight with Islamic State. Since then he has traveled back to Europe at least once and was involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium foiled by the police last January.
Two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters that the St. Denis cell was planning a fresh attack. “This new team was planning an attack on La Defense,” one source said, referring to a high-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris that is home to top banks and businesses.
A man in St. Denis told reporters that he had rented out the besieged apartment to two people last week.
“Someone asked me a favor, I did them a favor. Someone asked me to put two people up for three days and I did them a favor, it’s normal. I don’t know where they came from I don’t know anything,” the man told Reuters Television.
He was later arrested by police.
Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their air strikes in Syria, but French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26 to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.
Hollande is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington two days before that to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State.
Obama said in Manila on Wednesday he wanted Moscow to shift its focus from propping up Syria’s government to fighting the group and would discuss that with Putin.
Russia is allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the West says he must go if there is to be a political solution to Syria’s prolonged civil war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Western nations had to drop their demands for Assad’s exit if they wanted to build a coalition against Islamic State.
But Hollande said countries should set aside their sometimes diverging national interests to battle their common foe.
“The international community must rally around that spirit. I know very well that each country doesn’t have the same interests,” he told an assembly of city mayors on Wednesday.
He confirmed that a French aircraft carrier group would set sail later in the day and head to the eastern Mediterranean to intensify the number of strikes on militant targets in Syria. Russia has said its navy will cooperate with this mission. Reuters