Brussels: Belgian police launched a major operation in the troubled Brussels district of Molenbeek, as authorities today hunted a key suspect in the Paris attacks. News outlets reported that one person was arrested, but the federal prosecutor denied a report by the broadcaster RTL that it was key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam. Dozens of armed police, some wearing balaclavas, stood in front of a police van blocking a street in Molenbeek, a rundown immigrant area in western Brussels where a number of arrests have been made following the bloody attacks in Paris last Friday.
Police issued a warning to residents over a loudspeaker, AFP reporters said, while Belgian media reported officers had surrounded a house and were telling the occupants to come out. Belgian police later asked the media not to broadcast live from the scene “for everyone’s safety”. Abdeslam, 26, is the subject of an international arrest warrant by French police who have described him as “dangerous”. Belgian media described him as “public enemy number one”.
His brother Brahim, who lived in Molenbeek, was one of the attackers who blew himself up during the Paris attacks. Molenbeek has come under growing scrutiny as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Europe, with several major attacks and plots linked to the down-at-heel district. The federal prosecutor confirmed that Belgian authorities had extended the detention period for seven arrested suspects until Monday night.
Meanwhile a Belgian newspaper said that Brahim Abdeslam had links to a Belgian Islamic State militant believed to be the mastermind of a jihadist cell dismantled in January. His name appears in several police files alongside leading militant Abdelhamid Abaaoud relating to criminal cases in 2010 and 2011, Flemish-language newspaper De Standaard reported.
“Investigators see a link with Verviers,” it said, referring to an eastern Belgian town where police shot dead two militants in January and broke up a cell aiming to kill Belgian police officers in the streets days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Belgian prosecutors were not immediately available for comment.
Abaaoud – a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent who allegedly led the group and had fought with the Islamic State group in Syria – remains at large. He also lived in Molenbeek. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel today said that the authorities would crack down on militancy in Molenbeek and other districts. “I have asked the security services to give us plans very quickly, for Molenbeek but also other areas, so that we can have a much more organised approach to the fight against radicalism,” he told RTL radio.
In 2001, it was in Molenbeek where the assassins of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had stayed. It was also home for a while for Hassan El Haski, who was found guilty of being one of the masterminds of the 2004 Madrid train bombings.