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Saturday 24 February 2018

Paris attacks suspect held in Belgium by police searching for 'man in the hat'

Mohamed Abrini is believed to be the mysterious
Mohamed Abrini is believed to be the mysterious "man in the hat" who escaped the double bombing at Zaventem airport (AP)

The remaining fugitive suspect in the November 13 Paris attacks was arrested in Belgium on Friday, after a raid linked to the deadly March 22 Brussels bombings yielded five detentions in all, Belgian authorities said.

The suspect, Mohamed Abrini, could be the mysterious "man in the hat" who escaped the double bombing at the Zaventem airport, but federal prosecutors said they still needed further verification.

"We are investigating if Abrini can be identified as the third person at the Brussels national airport, the so- called man with the hat," said prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt.

Another man arrested on Friday, Osama K, alias Naim al Ahmed, was seen with Brussels subway bomber Khalid El Bakraoui just before the March 22 attacks, the prosecutor said.

Osama K. was also filmed by security cameras in the City 2 shopping centre when the bags were bought that were used by the suicide bombers who attacked Brussels Airport the same morning.

Belgian prosecutors said fingerprints and DNA from Abrini had been found in a Renault Clio used in the Paris attacks, and in an apartment in the Forest area of the Belgian capital that was used by Salah Abdeslam, another Paris suspect, as a hideout until police stumbled upon it.

Friday's arrest of five suspects came a day after Belgian authorities released photos and video of the "man in the hat" airport suspect. Five hours after the initial detentions, authorities were still carrying out a raid in the same Anderlecht area of Brussels.

The government and top security officials gathered in a national security council meeting in the wake of Friday's detention to assess the consequences of the operation.

Abrini's precise role in the Paris attacks has never been clear, as is his full link to the Brussels. He is a 31-year-old Belgian-Moroccan petty criminal believed to have travelled early last summer to Syria where his younger brother died in 2014 in the Islamic State group's notorious francophone brigade.

He had not resurfaced since the emergence of surveillance video placing him in the convoy with the attackers headed to Paris. He had ties to Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the ringleader of the Paris attacks who died in a police stand-off on November 18, and is a childhood friend of brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam.

He went multiple times to Birmingham, England, last year, meeting with several men suspected of terrorist activity, a European security official said. The official said the meetings, including one later last summer, took place in several locations, including cafes and apartments.

He was travelling with Salah Abdeslam, who is in jail in Belgium for involvement in the Paris attacks, in the convoy headed to Paris in the 36 hours leading up to the attacks.

The man in the hat was with the two suicide bombers who killed 16 people at Brussels airport on March 22. A second arrest could also be linked to the Maelbeek subway bombing that killed another 16 people during rush hour that morning.

On Thursday, authorities released photos and video of a man wearing a dark hat, leaving the airport on foot, walking to the nearby town of Zaventem and then into Brussels, where all traces of him were reportedly lost.

The appeal for public assistance more than two weeks after the suicide bombings indicates that investigators were at a standstill.

Press Association

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