Brussels(Reuters): Belgian police arrested three people on Saturday in raids in a poor, immigrant quarter…
Police officers with dogs during a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels. After an intense four-month manhunt across Europe and beyond, police on Friday captured Salah Abdeslam, the top fugitive in the Paris attacks in the same Brussels neighborhood where he grew up.
Salah Abdeslam, the top suspect in last year’s deadly Paris attacks, was discharged on Saturday from a Brussels hospital along with a suspected accomplice and will now face official questioning and a fast-track effort to extradite him to France.
France’s interior minister called Abdeslam’s arrest a “major blow” to the Islamic State group in Europe, but also warned the threat of new attacks remains “extremely high.”
Belgium’s prime minister also said “the fight is not over,” and the Belgian government announced the nation’s terrorism alert level would remain unchanged at 3 on a 4-point scale.
Abdeslam, 26, was shot in the leg and his companion also injured when they were captured by police on Friday. Yvan Mayeur, the Brussels mayor, announced on Twitter that “the two presumed terrorists” had been discharged from CHU St. Pierre hospital on Saturday morning.
Abdeslam, a French national, is subject to a European arrest warrant issued by France. His seizure in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek after four months on the run brought relief to people who have seen his “wanted” poster all over two countries for months.
Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, said on Saturday he hopes Abdeslam can be brought to France to face justice for the Nov. 13 attacks on a rock concert, cafes and a stadium, which killed 130 people and left several attackers dead. He spoke after French President Francois Hollande held an emergency security meeting in Paris.
Once doctors consider Abdeslam fit to face questioning, he will be interrogated by Belgian investigators, possibly in the presence of French colleagues.
French anti-terrorist judges could file an extradition request as early as this weekend with Belgian prosecutors.
Belgian federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said that an investigating magistrate has 24 hours following a detention to issue an arrest warrant, though that deadline can be prolonged for another day. Then Abdeslam will have to appear before a pre-trial court, which will decide whether he stays in jail for up to another month.
“If he starts talking then I presume it will mean he stays longer in Belgium,” Van der Sypt said. But “sooner or later he will be extradited to France,” the Belgian prosecutor said.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said at a news conference on Saturday that his government has no “political objections” to handing Abdeslam over to the French, but wants to fully respect Belgian judicial procedure, which “can take at least a couple of weeks.”
French and Belgian anti-terrorism prosecutors plan a teleconference call on Saturday during which matters including Abdeslam’s extradition will be discussed, Belgian Federal Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Thierry Werts said.
A 2002 agreement among European Union member states speeds up the extradition process, making it a purely judicial process and removing any political aspect. For especially grave crimes, such as terrorist acts, the procedure goes even faster.
The shared French language between France and Belgium will help make the process even smoother. Abdeslam could appeal the extradition, but under the European principle of mutual recognition of judicial decisions, that would only give him a short respite.
Samia Maktouf, a French lawyer for several survivors and relatives of Paris attack victims, is urging immediate extradition. “Apart from his (medical) condition, I don’t see what might delay his extradition,” she told The Associated Press.
Survivors and victims’ families “relief is mingled with bitterness” because some suspects are still on the run and belong to an organized and sprawling network that has yet to be stopped, Maktouf said. “Our young people found death for no reason. Today, their families have empty chairs next to them, they have a phone that doesn’t ring any longer,” she said.
Abdeslam is a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader of the attacks. Investigators believe Abdeslam drove a car carrying a group of gunmen who took part in the shootings, rented rooms and shopped for detonators. Most of the Paris attackers died on the night of the attacks, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up.
After the bloodbath, Salah Abdeslam evaded a dragnet to return to Brussels. He was believed to have slipped through police fingers multiple times despite an international manhunt. At one point, Belgian authorities locked down their capital for several days but failed to find him.
Abdeslam and four other suspects were detained in Friday’s raid, including three members of a family that sheltered him. Abdeslam was not armed but did not immediately obey orders when confronted by police, Van der Sypt said.
Belgian prosecutors said they were not sure of the identity of the presumed accomplice arrested along with Abdeslam. They said he is believed to have used fake Syrian and Belgian documents bearing two different names.
It was possible Abdeslam had spent days, weeks or months in the Molenbeek apartment, according to Van der Sypt.
Two other people believed linked to the attacks were still being sought, including fellow Molenbeek resident Mohamed Abrini and a man known under the alias of Soufiane Kayal.
Abdeslam’s role in the attacks has never been clearly spelled out. The car he drove was abandoned in northern Paris, and his mobile phone and an explosive vest he may have had were later found in the Paris suburb of Montrouge, raising the possibility that he aborted his mission.