Shooting broke out in northern Paris during a dawn raid by police investigating the Paris attacks, sources said Wednesday, as police hunted those behind the attacks that claimed 129 lives in the French capital on Friday.
Two suspects were killed during the exchange, including a woman who detonated an explosives belt, police said.
Gunfire and explosions rocked the Saint-Denis area in the north of the city, near the Stade de France stadium, from before dawn as terrified residents were evacuated or told to stay in their homes.
Authorities arrested seven people and five police officers suffered minor injuries in the operation — a seven-hour stand-off between security forces and a group of people holed up in an apartment.
Black-clad elite police were seen hauling away a naked suspect in the streets near where three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the football stadium at the start of Friday’s attacks.
After the raid, white-suited forensic experts swarmed the building as police tried to verify if Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of Friday’s attacks in Paris that killed 129 people, had been in the apartment.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said a probe into the attacks allowed police “to obtain telephonic surveillance and witness testimony which led us to believe that Abaaoud was likely to be in an… apartment in Saint-Denis”.
However, Molins added it was too early to say if he was among those arrested or killed.
Abaaoud is an Islamic State fighter who was previously thought to be in Syria after fleeing raids in his native Belgium earlier this year.
A senior police official said he believed Abaaoud, a Belgian Islamic State militant, was inside the apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis with five other heavily armed people.
The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named according to police rules but is informed routinely about the operation, said scores of police stormed the building and were met with unexpectedly violent resistance.
At least one of those killed was inside the apartment, according to a source close to the operation. The source did not identify the casualty.
French President Francois Hollande praised security forces for their role in “the particularly perilous and taxing” operation which he said proved the country was involved in a “war against terrorism”.
He told a gathering of mayors that municipal police would be given more weapons and equipment from the stock of the national police.
But Hollande urged the nation not to “give in to fear” or excessive reactions in the wake of the attacks.
“No anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim act can be tolerated,” he said.
Police are hunting for two other individuals, including 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, suspected of taking part in the attacks with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim.
A Spanish security official says French authorities sent out a bulletin to police across Europe asking them to watch out for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Abdeslam.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of department rules preventing the official from being named.
Spain’s El Espanol digital publication first reported the bulletin Wednesday, publishing a document with the car’s description and naming Abdeslam.
Seven jihadists were killed or blew themselves up in the unprecedented November 13 attacks on the stadium, a concert hall, bars and restaurants that were claimed by the Islamic State group operating in Iraq and Syria.
All of those killed in the attack have now been identified, a statement from the French cabinet said.
Overnight raids by French police across France resulted in 25 arrests and the seizure of 34 weapons, the Interior Ministry said Wednesday.
The arrests were the latest in a nationwide police dragnet that has seen nightly raids by security forces under powers granted by the state of emergency declared after last week’s attacks in Paris.
In all, French police have carried out 414 raids and made 60 arrests while seizing 75 weapons since Friday. The captured armory includes 11 military-style firearms, 33 rifles and 31 handguns. In addition to dozens of arrests, 118 more people have been placed under house arrest in another of the new powers permitted under France’s state of emergency.
The standoff in Saint-Denis began before dawn and only ended some six hours later, police said.
Residents of the suburb, some of whom were evacuated in their underwear, said they had been caught in a terrifying exchange of fire during the police raid early Wednesday.
Hayat, 26, had been leaving a friend’s apartment where she had spent the night when the shots erupted.
“I heard gunfire,” she said. “I could have been hit by a bullet. I never thought terrorists could have hidden here.”
Around 50 French soldiers were deployed to the area, AFP journalists reported. They were posted along the main high street near the apartment where the suspects were holed up.
The area is home to the Stade de France, one of several places hit by gunmen and suicide bombers on Friday in the worst ever attack on French soil, which was claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group.
Firemen told AFP they they joined the operation against “an armed group holed up in an apartment” at 04:31 am (0331 GMT), without giving any further details, adding that one person was lightly hurt.
The area was closed down and intermittent gunfire could still be heard an hour after it started.
Another source said a special armed response unit took part in the raid, which comes as Europe was on high alert after footage from the scene of one of Friday’s attacks revealed a ninth suspect may have taken part.
It was not clear if this ninth man was one of two suspected accomplices detained in Belgium or was on the run, potentially with Abdeslam who carried out one of the attacks at Bonne Biere cafe along with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim.
Hollande on Wednesday will hold a meeting to discuss proposals to extend by three months the state of emergency declared after the worst attacks in French history. It will then be put to vote by lawmakers Thursday and Friday.
In a sign of the nervousness gripping Europe after Friday’s carnage, a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands was canceled Tuesday and the crowd evacuated after police acted on a “serious” bomb threat.
As police stepped up the hunt for the fugitives, French and Russian jets pounded IS targets in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa for a third consecutive day.
‘Screw them, we have champagne’
France and Russia have vowed merciless retaliation for the Paris attacks and last month’s bombing of a Russian airliner, also claimed by the Islamic State group, which have galvanized international resolve to destroy the jihadists and end Syria’s more than four-year civil war.
“It’s necessary to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said as France prepared to send an aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean.
Hollande will meet Putin in Moscow on November 26, two days after seeing US President Barack Obama in Washington.
Police have issued the photograph of one of the three men who blew themselves up outside the Stade de France, who investigators have established entered Europe through Greece, as hundreds of thousands of refugees have done this year.
He was found with a Syrian passport near his body, but investigators have not confirmed that he was the man in the document and are appealing for anyone who recognizes him to come forward.
Satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost 12 staff in an attack by jihadist gunmen in January, unveiled a tribute cover for the Paris victims showing a dancing reveler with bottle and glass in hand, and champagne pouring out of bullet holes in his body.
“They have weapons,” the caption reads, adding: “Screw them, we have champagne.”
French, Russian rapprochement
France has invoked a previously unused European Union article to ask member states for help in its mission to fight back against the Islamic State organisation, which received unanimous backing from Brussels.
But France also appears to be forging an unexpected alliance with Russia, which it has clashed with over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, after both countries were targeted by the jihadists in deadly attacks.
On Tuesday, Russia finally confirmed that the Russian passenger jet that crashed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last month, killing 224 people, had been brought down by a bomb, though it did not name any responsible group.
The Kremlin said Putin and Hollande had “agreed to assure closer contact and coordination between the military and security service agencies of the two countries in actions against terrorist groups… in Syria.”
The alliance comes as international players meet to discuss ways of ending the Syrian war, which has spurred the rise of the Islamic State group, forced millions into exile and triggered Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
On a solidarity visit to Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “big transition” in Syria was probably only weeks away after Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia reached agreement at the weekend on a path towards elections.
Still, regime and opposition representatives have yet to sit down together and there is little agreement on the role of Assad in any transition, a key sticking point in the talks.
Back in the United States, more than half of all state governors on Tuesday took steps to force the White House to freeze programs to resettle Syrian and Iraqi refugees, citing concerns about attacks.
Highlighting US fears over the attack, two Air France flights bound for Paris from the United States were diverted Tuesday and landed safely after anonymous threats the carrier called a “bomb scare.”