Belgium seen central to attacks, France launches manhunt
By Emmanuel Jarry and Robert-Jan Bartunek
PARIS/BRUSSELS – Police investigating a wave of attacks in Paris launched an international hunt on Sunday for a man they believe might have helped organize the deadly assaults with two of his brothers in Belgium.
The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Friday’s coordinated suicide bombings and shootings, which have re-ignited a row over Europe’s refugee crisis and drawn calls for a halt to the ongoing influx of Muslim asylum-seekers.
France said the death toll had risen to 132 from a previous total of 129, with 349 people injured, of whom around 42 were still in intensive care.
Two of the attackers who brought carnage to Paris were French nationals living in neighboring Belgium, officials said on Sunday. One of them blew himself up in the assault, while the other was arrested on Saturday as he tried to cross the border.
Police said they were seeking a Belgian-born man, Abdeslam Salah, in connection with the attack, describing him as “dangerous”. The judicial source said he was a brother of the other two men, who have not been named.
“The abject attacks that hit us on Friday were prepared abroad and mobilized a team in Belgium that benefited … from help in France,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters after meeting his Belgian counterpart in Paris.
Stunned by the carnage, thousands of people thronged to makeshift memorials at four of the sites where the attacks took place, laying flowers and lighting candles to remember the dead.
“We are living a nightmare,” said Caroline Pallut, whose 37-year-old cousin Maud Serrault died when the Islamist gunmen attacked Paris’s Bataclan concert hall, killing 89 people – the bloodiest single incident on Friday night.
“It is all so senseless. She had only just got married.”
Belgian officials said they had arrested seven people in Brussels after two Belgian-registered cars were discovered in Paris, both suspected of being used by attackers.
“I do not want any preachers of hatred on Belgian soil! There is no place for them in Belgium,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Twitter.
A judicial source said Salah, a 26-year-old French national, had rented out one of the two cars, a Volkswagen Polo, that was found not far from the Bataclan hall.
In a sign that at least one gunman might have escaped, a source close to the investigation said a Seat car believed to have been used by the attackers had been found in the eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil with three Kalashnikov rifles inside.
Only one of the attackers has been named – Ismael Omar Mostefai, a 29-year-old who lived in the city of Chartres, southwest of Paris. He was identified by the print from one of his fingers that was severed when his suicide vest exploded.
Panic in Paris
France has said it is in a state of war and has vowed to defeat the Islamic State in its bases in Iraq and Syria, which French warplanes have been targeting for months as part of a U.S.-led campaign against the self-declared caliphate.
Museums and theaters remained closed in Paris for a second day on Sunday, with soldiers patrolling the streets and metro stations alongside police after French President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency.
Hundreds of people attending a spontaneous rally in the central Place de la Republique on Sunday night fled the square in a moment of raw panic, with some reporting hearing shots. Police said it was a false alarm.
French authorities found the bodies of seven killers on Friday, six of whom blew themselves up while one was shot by police. Islamic State said there were eight attackers.
Police said they found a Syrian passport near one of the dead men. Greece said the passport holder crossed from Turkey to the Greek Islands last month and then sought asylum in Serbia before heading north – following the route taken by hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war in the Middle East.
The news revived a furious a row within the European Union on how to handle the flood of refugees. Top Polish and Slovak officials poured cold water on an EU plan to relocate asylum seekers across the bloc, saying the violence underlined their concerns about taking in Muslim refugees.
Bavarian allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a reversal of her “open-door” refugee policy, saying the attacks underlined the need for tougher controls.
“The days of uncontrolled immigration and illegal entry can’t continue just like that. Paris changes everything,” Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
The only gunman named to date, Mostefai, was French-born and of Algerian descent. Police said he had a security file for Islamist radicalization and a criminal record but had never been in jail. His father, brother and five others believed to be close to him were held for questioning, a judicial source said.
He lived in Luce, a quiet residential area of Chartres, for several years until about 2012. “No-one knew him here. There is no trace of him,” Karim Benayed, a senior member of the local mosque, told Reuters.
Many of the victims were young people out enjoying themselves on a Friday night. The dead came from around the world, including one U.S. citizen, a Swede, Briton, German, Italian, two Belgians, two Romanians and two Mexicans.
Speaking in Vienna, Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said his country’s intelligence services had shared information they had which indicated that France, the United States and Iran were among countries being targeted for attack.
At a G20 summit in Turkey, President Barack Obama vowed to step up efforts to eliminate Islamic State and prevent it from carrying out attacks like those in Paris. EU leaders urged Russia to focus its military efforts on the radical Islamists.
France was the first European state to join U.S. air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq in September 2014, while a year later it extended its air strikes to Syria. Russia began its own air campaign in Syria in October, but has been targeting mainly areas controlled by other groups opposed to its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s critics say.
France had been on high alert since Islamist gunmen attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris in January, killing 17 people.
Those attacks briefly united France in defense of freedom of speech, with a mass demonstration of more than a million people. But far-right populist Marine Le Pen is now making gains by blaming France’s security problems on immigration and Islam.
“By spreading out migrants through the villages and towns of France, there is a fear that terrorists will take advantage of these population flows to hit out at us,” she said after meeting the French president on Sunday.