Two people died Wednesday in a police raid targeting the suspected mastermind of last week’s terrorist attacks in Paris, as investigators continued to hunt down those responsible for the violence.
The raid in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis was meant to capture 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin who is thought to have planned the shootings and bombings that left at least 129 people dead and 352 injured in Paris on Friday.
Abaaoud, who fought alongside the Islamic State extremist group in Syria, is also suspected of having masterminded a foiled plot to kill police officers in Belgium in January.
It remained unclear on Wednesday afternoon if Abaaoud was among the people who died or were captured in the raid. French prosecutor Francois Molins is scheduled to brief the press at 7 pm (1800 GMT).
The dead were a man who was hit by “projectiles” and grenades, as well as a female suicide bomber who set off her explosive vest shortly after the police assault started at 4:20 am, Molins said.
The woman called someone by phone before blowing herself up, the RTL broadcaster quoted police sources as saying, raising the spectre of more accomplices. As many as 25 people may have played a role in Friday’s attacks, the broadcaster said.
Seven people were also taken into custody during Wednesday’s raid. They included three people found in the targeted apartment, two people hiding in rubble and the person who provided the flat to the suspects.
He was told that two people from Belgium would be using the apartment – described as a squat – and did not know they were “terrorists,” the man told AFP news agency before being taken into custody.
“All will be done to determine who is who,” Molins said during a visit to the scene once the massive raid and ensuing police operation ended after more than seven hours.
Surveillance, intercepted phone conversations and witness statements led police to believe that Abaaoud could be in the apartment, according to the prosecutor.
The raid featured heavy gunfire and explosions. Five officers were lightly injured, while a police dog was killed by the suspects, France’s National Police wrote on Twitter.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised the police forces for intervening in an “extremely courageous” way. They faced gunfire for many hours, in conditions that “they had until now never encountered,” he said.
President Francois Hollande described the operation as “particularly dangerous,” in a speech before mayors.
Psychological support will be provided to residents, along with shelter for those who were evacuated, municipal councillor Zaia Boughilas told dpa in Saint-Denis.
Around 15 people, including children, were evacuated out of the targeted building, while thousands of people were stuck in their homes during the raid, the newspaper Le Parisien quoted deputy mayor Stephane Peu as saying.
The area of the raid is close to the Stade de France football stadium, which was targeted along with the Bataclan concert hall, restaurants and cafes during Friday’s attacks.
Seven assailants died in that violence. Two more suspects may be on the run, French media reported.
Belgian and French police have been searching since Sunday for 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, a Frenchman and Belgium resident whose brother Brahim was among the dead assailants.
It emerged Wednesday that Belgian police had at one time interrogated the Abdeslam brothers, after Brahim unsuccessfully attempted to go to Syria.
“We knew they were radicalized and that they could go to Syria, [but] they showed no sign of a possible threat,” Belgium’s RTL broadcaster quoted prosecution spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt as saying.
“Even if we had brought them to France’s attention, I doubt that they could have been stopped,” he added.
There have also been reports that a ninth attacker may have taken part in Friday’s events. An unidentified man was spotted in footage of a car carrying the Abdeslam brothers, AFP wrote.
Also on Wednesday, the French government presented the first new legislation in response to the terrorist attacks. It would keep France’s state of emergency in place for three more months. The measure is due to be considered by parliament on Thursday and the Senate on Friday.
The state of emergency has allowed police searches to be carried out more easily and at all hours of the night. A total of 118 searches were done overnight as part of the efforts to fight terrorism and crime, with 25 people taken into custody and 34 weapons seized, Cazeneuve said Wednesday.