EUROPE

European manhunt ends with arrest of suspect in Paris attacks

The largest manhunt in Europe came to a dramatic end Friday when police in Belgium arrested a fugitive linked to the Paris terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in November.

Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national who grew up in Brussels, was captured in a raid that sent loud bursts of gunfire reverberating through the city's Molenbeek neighborhood.

“We got him,” tweeted Belgium's secretary of state for asylum and migration, Theo Francken.

Abdeslam was injured in the leg during the raid and police were preparing to question him late Friday, hopeful that he will reveal crucial information about a Europe-wide network of Islamic extremists.

Images from French TV showed a man with a seemingly injured leg, wearing an off-white hooded top, being bundled into a police car by several armed officers in combat gear. The identity of the man in the footage was not immediately known.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said three suspects were arrested. The prime minister believed they were all armed and had to be neutralized by authorities.

“This was a very important result in the battle for democracy,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Michel had been at a summit between the European Union and Turkey, where an agreement on the migrant crisis had just been reached. He was seen hurrying out of the building on his phone as soon as he was informed about the incident.

Michel said President Obama had also telephoned to congratulate the security forces and urge him not to give up the fight against violence and terrorism.

At a news conference, French President Francois Hollande struck a somber tone, saying that while the arrests marked an “important moment,” this was not the end of the fight against terrorism.

“Until we have arrested all those who took part or contributed, financed the terrorist network that committed the abominable act on Nov. 13, our fight will not be over,” he said.

Hollande said the prosecutor was likely to seek Abdeslam's swift extradition to France.

Abdeslam had been the subject of a massive international manhunt since three suicide bombers killed scores inside a theater, cafes and at the national stadium.

Abdeslam is believed to have played a central role in organizing the attacks and may have been the driver for the gunmen who blew themselves up at the Stade de France.

He was a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud; and his brother, Brahim, was among the attackers who blew themselves up.

Authorities believe Abdeslam fled Paris by car several hours after the attacks after phoning two friends asking them to drive from Brussels to collect him. It later emerged that he passed through multiple police checkpoints but was not stopped.

Nearly every other attacker either blew themselves up or was killed by police. Why Abdeslam did not meet the same fate has been the source of some debate.

Authorities are looking at various theories including whether his bomb failed to detonate or he backed out.

Abdeslam was ultimately found Friday back in the neighborhood he knew best: the one where he lived before the Paris terrorist strikes.

His parents reportedly still live in a townhouse there, close to the mayor's office.

The fact that Abdeslam eluded capture for so many months was a huge source of embarrassment and frustration to intelligence services, and authorities were heavily criticized for failing to prevent the attacks and find all the culprits.

Police started to home in on Abdeslam earlier in the week.

Michel said 58 people were arrested during a raid in the Brussels neighborhood of Forest on Tuesday. Police were met with gunfire and an Algerian national, identified as Mohamed Belkaid, was killed. Belkaid is believed to have been a key member of the team behind the Paris attacks.

Two men reportedly escaped during Tuesday's raid, one of whom might have been Abdeslam.
 

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

5:35 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.

1:40 p.m.: This article has been updated to add comments by the French president.

11:22 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

11:06 a.m.: This article has been updated with news that Salah Abdeslam was wounded in the raid.

10:25 a.m.: This has been updated with the capture of Salah Abdeslam.

10:15 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with more information and background on the Paris attacks.

This article was originally posted at 9:55 a.m.

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