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Paris terror mastermind arrested after shootout with Belgian police

Salah Abdeslam said wounded in Brussels firefight, days after fingerprints found in apartment raid earlier this week

This undated file photo released Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, by French Police shows 26-year old Salah Abdeslam, who is wanted by police in connection with recent terror attacks in Paris, as police investigations continue. Belgian prosecutors said Friday March 18, 2016 that fingerprints of Paris attacks fugitive Salah Abdeslam found in Brussels apartment that was raided earlier this week. (Police Nationale via AP)
This undated file photo released Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, by French Police shows 26-year old Salah Abdeslam, who is wanted by police in connection with recent terror attacks in Paris, as police investigations continue. Belgian prosecutors said Friday March 18, 2016 that fingerprints of Paris attacks fugitive Salah Abdeslam found in Brussels apartment that was raided earlier this week. (Police Nationale via AP)

The main suspect in the jihadist attacks on Paris in November, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in a raid in Brussels on Friday, French police sources said.

It was not immediately clear if Abdeslam, who has been on the run since the November 13 attacks that killed 130 people, was injured in the raid in Brussels’ Molenbeek district.

Belgian Immigration Minister Theo Francken on Friday confirmed the arrest of Salah Abdeslam.

“We got him,” Francken said in a tweet, minutes after French police announced the arrest, home to several of the Islamic State commandos who took part in the massacre.

Police on Friday launched an anti-terror operation in the Brussels area home to Abdeslam whose fingerprints were found in an apartment raided this week, prosecutors said.

“A police operation is underway in Molenbeek,” the Belga state news agency reported, citing the office of the federal prosecutor.

No further details were immediately available.

A man shot dead in a raid on a Brussels apartment this week is believed to have been an accomplice of Paris attacks fugitive Abdeslam, and fingerprints found inside indicate Abdeslam himself was there at some point too, Belgian prosecutors said Friday.

Two men escaped from the apartment during a protracted exchange of gunfire with police, and one might have been Abdeslam, they said.

“It’s possible,” said federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt, though he said no further information would be made public so as not to jeopardize the investigation.

“All I can confirm is that the fingerprints of Salah Abdeslam were found in the apartment in Forest,” a neighborhood of Brussels, he said. He said it was possible the fugitive had spent “days, weeks or months,” there, but that it was too early for investigators to known for certain.

Abdeslam, 26, fled Paris after the Nov. 13 gun and bomb attacks that killed 130 people at a theatre, the national stadium and cafes. Most of the Paris attackers died that night, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up.

Police officers secure the site of a shooting on Dries-Driesstraat at Forest-Vorst in Brussels, Belgium on March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Thierry Monasse)
Police officers secure the site of a shooting on Dries-Driesstraat at Forest-Vorst in Brussels, Belgium on March 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Thierry Monasse)

The Brussels-born Abdeslam, a childhood friend of suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is believed to have driven a group of gunmen who took part.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which Belgian nationals played key roles.

This undated file photo provided by the Belgian Federal Police shows 26-year old Salah Abdeslam, who is wanted by police in connection with recent terror attacks in Paris. (Belgian Federal Police via AP)
This undated file photo provided by the Belgian Federal Police shows 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is wanted by police in connection with recent terror attacks in Paris. (Belgian Federal Police via AP)

On Tuesday, a joint team of Belgian and French police showed up to search a residence in the Forest area in connection with the Paris investigation, and 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 Mohamed 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, Abaaoud’s niece. Both Ait Boulahcen and Abaaoud died afterward in a police siege.

Abdeslam slipped through a police dragnet to return to Brussels after the bloodbath in Paris, and though the target of an international manhunt, has not been found since.

In January, Belgian authorities said one of his 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.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.

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