Friday 20 September 2019

Ultra-orthodox Muslim man detained after raid on remote French village in wake of Paris terror attacks

French police cordon the area
French police cordon the area

A man said to practice an ultra-orthodox version of Islam has been detained after a raid on a French village as police step up security following the Paris terror attacks.

A judicial police official said Olivier Corel was detained for questioning after the raid on his home in a village in the Pyrenees 70 police.

The swoop on his home in Artigat was part of measures under a state of emergency declared in the wake of November 13 attacks that killed at least 130 people in addition to seven Islamic extremist attackers.

The official said Corel was detained for illegal holding of a hunting rifle.

Authorities believe Corel, 69, who is of Syrian origin, had provided lodgings for Fabien Clain, who is reported to have been the voice on an Islamic State French-language claim of responsibility for the Paris attacks.

Clain was convicted in 2009 for involvement in a network sending extremist fighters to Iraq.

Corel is also believed to have figured in the religious life of Frenchman Mohammed Merah, who killed a rabbi, three children at a Jewish school and three paratroopers in southern France in 2012.

Referred to in the French press as the "white emir," Corel, who has a full white beard, has been questioned in the past by police. He can be held for up to four days.

The man who housed a suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks has been charged with terrorism-related offences.

Jawad Bendaoud, 29, is the first person suspected of a direct link to the attackers to be charged in connection with the attacks.

The prosecutor's office said he was charged with criminal association and detention of incendiary or explosive substances linked to a terrorist enterprise.

Bendaoud acknowledged in a television interview giving shelter to two people from Belgium in his home in Saint-Denis but said he did not know who they were or what they planned.

He told BFM television: "I didn't know they were terrorists. I was asked to do a favour. I did a favour, sir."

It was that apartment that was raided by police and in which Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the man believed to have planned the Paris attacks, died.

Abaaoud had probably planned to carry out another suicide bombing days later in the city's business district, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.

He and an accomplice are believed to have been planning to attack La Defense on November 18 or 19, Mr Molins said.

Abaaoud was among three people killed during the raid on the apartment in the early hours of November 18.

His female cousin, Hasna Ait Boulahcen, also died in the operation, while the third person, who has not been identified, is believed to have detonated a suicide vest, which led to part of the flat collapsing.

Mr Molins said it was the unidentified third person who is believed to have been the accomplice with whom Abaaoud could have carried out an attack on La Defense.

The prosecutor said he "can't be, and doesn't want to be more precise" on the details suggesting such an attack had been planned.

The November 13 attacks targeted people enjoying a Friday night out at a packed concert hall, a restaurant terrace, a cafe and a football match between France and Germany.

In the hours after the killings, Abaaoud is believed to have returned to the sites of at least some of the attacks, including the Bataclan concert hall, even while special police forces were still there.

"The geolocalisation of Abdelhamid Abaaoud's alleged phone between 22:28 pm and 0:28 confirms a presence in the 12th, 11th, and 10th districts, and notably near the Bataclan concert hall," Mr Molins said.

"This allows us to think that Abdelhamid Abaaoud returns to the crime scenes following the attacks on terraces of the cafes and restaurants of the 10th and 11th districts while (special police) was still taking action at the Bataclan."

The attack has been traced to a network of people with ties to both France and Belgium, where Abaaoud was from.

The prosecutor's office also issued an international arrest warrant for Mohamed Abrini, who is being tracked by both Belgian and French police.

Abrini, who has been described as "armed and dangerous," was seen with Salah Abdeslam - a fugitive believed to have been involved in the attacks and who crossed into Belgium the day after the killings - at a petrol station in Ressons on the highway to Paris two days before the attacks.

The Belgian capital has remained on the highest level of alert since the weekend for fear of a "serious and imminent threat," with shops, schools and the underground shut.

Schools are expected to reopen today with parts of the underground system, although the alert level will remain.

On the diplomatic front, French president Francis Hollande visited Washington for talks with President Barak Obama as part of a push for the international community to bolster the campaign against Islamic State extremists.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Mr Obama said IS, which he described as a "barbaric terrorist group," cannot be tolerated and must be destroyed.

French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told MPs on Tuesday that 124 people have been handed preliminary charges since a state of emergency was imposed hours after the attacks, following more than 1,230 searches in which 230 weapons were recovered.

A street cleaner in a Paris suburb found an explosive vest on Monday near the place where Abdeslam's mobile phone was found, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission.

Meanwhile, the brother of Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to be on the run after the Paris attacks, has again urged him to surrender to police.

Mohamed Abdeslam said on RTL radio that he shares the pain of victims' families and wishes he and his family could have done something to prevent the bloodshed on November 13.

Mr Abdeslam had two brothers involved in the attacks. Brahim Abdeslam blew himself up in front of a Paris cafe, and Salah Abdeslam is believed to have been another potential bomber but escaped the scene. An international warrant is out for his arrest.

"Let him turn himself in for his parents, for justice, for the families of victims, so that we can find out what happened," Mohamed Abdeslam said.

He said he saw his brothers a few days before they left their Brussels suburb for Paris, but had no idea what they were plotting, and has not heard from Salah since.

France is deploying additional police and troops to guard about 140 world leaders expected to arrive in the Paris region this weekend for talks on fighting global warming, which start on Monday.

Mr Cazeneuve said France will impose tight road traffic restrictions for the climate conference and maintain controls on its borders, which are normally open to other European countries.

He said the border checks would remain in place as long as the threat level remains high.

He added that 120,000 police, gendarmes and soldiers are deployed across the country to assure France's security.

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