BRUSSELS — After an intense four-month manhunt across Europe and beyond, police on Friday captured the top fugitive in the Paris attacks in the same Brussels neighbourhood where he grew up.
Salah Abdeslam was shot in the leg and detained by police during a raid in Molenbeek, said Ahmed El Khannouss, the neighbourhood’s deputy mayor.
Police are still searching for another suspect who is holed up in a house that is just a few dozen meters (yards) from two schools, he added.
Helmeted police with riot shields have cordoned off the area and two explosions were heard.
Brussels-born Abdeslam, 26, was among the attackers who killed 130 people at a rock concert, the national stadium and cafes on Nov. 13 in Paris.
In addition to Abdeslam, the whereabouts of two Paris attack suspects remains unknown, including fellow Molenbeek resident Mohamed Abrini and a man known under the alias of Soufiane Kayal.
Friday’s caputure of Abdeslam comes after Belgian authorities say they found his fingerprints in an apartment raided earlier this week in another Brussels neighbourhood.
In that raid, a man believed to have been an accomplice of Abdeslam — Mohamed Belkaid — was shot dead, Belgian prosecutors say. But two men escaped from the apartment, one of whom appears to have been Abdeslam.
Federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said it was possible Abdeslam had spent “days, weeks or months,” in the apartment.
Abdeslam fled Paris after the Nov. 13 attacks. Most of the Paris attackers died that night, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up. Brahim Abdeslam was buried in the area Thursday.
Salah Abdeslam, a childhood friend of suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is believed to have driven a group of gunmen who took part.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, in which Belgian nationals played key roles.
On Tuesday, a joint team of Belgian and French police showed up to search a residence in the Forest area of Brussels in connection with the Paris investigation, and were unexpectedly fired upon by at least two people inside. Four officers were slightly wounded.
An occupant of the residence was shot dead by a police sniper as he prepared to open fire on police from a window. Police identified him as Belkaid, 35, an Algerian national living illegally in Belgium.
A Kalashnikov assault rifle was found by his body, as well as a book on Salafism, an ultraconservative strain of Islam. Elsewhere in the apartment, police found an Islamic State banner as well as 11 Kalashnikov loaders and a large quantity of ammunition, the prosecutor said.
Belgian authorities initially said Belkaid had no known background in radical Islamic activities. But Friday afternoon, prosecutors issued a statement saying he was “most probably” an accomplice of Abdeslam who had been using a fake Belgian ID card in the name of Samir Bouzid.
A man using that ID card was one of the two men seen with Abdeslam in a rental car on the Hungarian-Austrian border in September.
Four days after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the same false ID card was used to transfer 750 euros ($847) to Hasna Ait Boulahcen, Abaaoud’s niece. Both Ait Boulahcen and Abaaoud died afterward in a police siege.
Abdeslam slipped through a police dragnet to return to Brussels after the bloodbath in Paris, and though the target of an international manhunt, has not been found since.
In January, Belgian authorities said one of his fingerprints was found alongside homemade suicide bomb belts at an apartment in another area of Brussels. Belgian prosecutors said it wasn’t known whether he had been at the address in the Schaerbeek district before or after the Paris attacks, or how long he had spent there.