Friday 21 October 2016

France launches 'massive' airstrikes on IS targets in Syria

Published 15/11/2015 | 04:11

Police Nationale wanted notice of Salah Abdeslam
Police Nationale wanted notice of Salah Abdeslam
French soldiers deployed as part of emergency security measures guard the National Assembly building in Paris (AP)
A mother and her son light candles while paying their respects in front of The Belle Equipe restaurant in Paris (AP)

France has launched "massive" air strikes on the Islamic State group's de-facto capital in Syria, destroying a jihadi training camp and a munitions dump in the city of Raqqa, where Iraqi intelligence officials say the attacks on Paris were planned.

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Twelve aircraft, including 10 fighter jets, dropped a total of 20 bombs in the biggest air strikes since France extended its bombing campaign against the extremist group to Syria in September, a Defence Ministry statement said. The jets launched from sites in Jordan and the Persian Gulf, in coordination with US forces.

Meanwhile, as police announced seven arrests and hunted for more members of the sleeper cell that carried out the Paris attacks, French officials revealed that several key suspects had been stopped and released by police after the attack.

The arrest warrant for Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old born in Brussels, calls him very dangerous and warns people not to intervene if they see him.

Yet police already had him in their grasp early on Saturday, when they stopped a car carrying three men near the Belgian border. By then, hours had passed since authorities identified Abdeslam as the renter of a Volkswagen Polo that carried hostage takers to the Paris theatre where so many died.

Three French police officials and a top French security official confirmed that officers let Abdeslam go after checking his ID.

Tantalising clues about the extent of the plot have emerged from Baghdad, where senior Iraqi officials said France and other countries had been warned on Thursday of an imminent attack.

An Iraqi intelligence dispatch warned that Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had ordered his followers to immediately launch gun and bomb attacks and take hostages inside the countries of the coalition fighting them in Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi dispatch, which was obtained by the AP, provided no details on when or where the attack would take place. A senior French security official said French intelligence gets these kinds of warnings "all the time" and "every day".

However, Iraqi intelligence officials told the AP that they also warned France about specific details: among them, that the attackers were trained for this operation and sent back to France from Raqqa.

The officials also said that a sleeper cell in France then met with the attackers after their training and helped them to execute the plan. There were 24 people involved in the operation, they said: 19 attackers and five others in charge of logistics and planning.

Abdeslam is one of three brothers believed to be involved; One who crossed with him into Belgium was later arrested, and another blew himself up inside the Bataclan theatre after taking the audience hostage and firing on them repeatedly. It was the worst of Friday's synchronised attacks, leaving 89 fatalities and hundreds of people wounded inside.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility. Its statement mocked France's air attacks on suspected IS targets in Syria and Iraq, and called Paris "the capital of prostitution and obscenity".

In all, three teams of attackers including seven suicide bombers attacked the national stadium, the concert hall and nearby nightspots. The attacks wounded 350 people, 99 of them seriously.

Abdeslam rented the black Volkswagen Polo used by the hostage-takers. A Brussels parking ticket found inside led police to at least one of the arrests in Belgium, a French police official said.

Three Kalashnikovs were found inside another car known to have been used in the attacks that was found in Montreuil, an eastern Parisian suburb.

As many as three of the seven suicide bombers were French citizens, as was at least one of the men arrested in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels.

One, identified by the print on a recovered finger, was 29-year-old Frenchman Ismael Mostefai, who had a record of petty crime and had been flagged in 2010 for ties to Islamic radicalism, the Paris prosecutor said.

Police detained Mostefai's father, a brother and other relatives and they were still being questioned Sunday.

Struggling to keep his country calm and united after an exceptionally violent year, President Francois Hollande met Sunday with opposition leaders - conservative rival and former President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as increasingly popular far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has used the attacks on Paris to advance her anti-immigrant agenda.

Refugees fleeing war by the tens of thousands fear the Paris attacks could prompt Europe to close its doors, especially after police said a Syrian passport found next to one attacker's body suggested its owner passed through Greece into the European Union and on through Macedonia and Serbia last month.

Paris remains on edge amid three days of official mourning. French troops have deployed by the thousands and tourist sites remain closed in one of the most visited cities on Earth.

Press Association

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