Wednesday 21 August 2019

Paris terror mastermind 'planned another suicide attack'

A French gendarme officer patrols in front of the Arc de Triomphe, on the Champs Elysees in Paris (AP)
A French gendarme officer patrols in front of the Arc de Triomphe, on the Champs Elysees in Paris (AP)
A French soldier patrols at Gare du Nord train station in Paris (AP)

The man believed to have planned the Paris attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more had likely planned to carry out another suicide bombing days later in the city's business district, a French official says.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud and an accomplice are believed to have been planning to attack La Defense on November 18 or 19, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said.

Abaaoud was among three people killed during a police raid on an apartment in a northern Paris suburb 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 apartment 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. Information obtained on November 19 suggested "that the two attackers - Abaaoud and the man we found by his side in the apartment - were planning an attack consisting of blowing themselves up at La Defense either on Wednesday the 18th or Thursday the 19th".

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.

Belgian authorities charged a fifth suspect on Tuesday with terror-related offences relating to the Paris attack, while the federal 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 subways shut. Schools are expected to reopen on Wednesday with parts of the subway 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.

In Paris, authorities charged Jawad Bendaoud with terrorism offences. He appeared on Tuesday before an anti-terrorism judge in Paris.

Bendaoud was detained last week after saying in a television interview he had provided lodging to the suspected planners of the attacks in an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. It was this apartment that was raided by police and in which Abaaoud died.

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.

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."

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