PARIS (AFP) – A female suicide bomber blew herself up and one other militant died in a police raid in Paris on Wednesday as explosions and automatic gunfire rang out in an operation targeting the suspected mastermind of last week s attacks.
The pre-dawn raids in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis turned into an hours-long stand-off between security forces and up to four people holed up in an apartment, near the Stade de France stadium that was attacked by suicide bombers on Friday.
The operation targeted the suspected mastermind of Friday s deadly attacks in the capital, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, an Islamic State fighter who was previously thought to be in Syria after fleeing raids in his native Belgium earlier this year.
A source close to the investigation said a woman in the apartment had blown herself up and one other person was killed, while police said five people had been arrested.
Hayat, 26, had been leaving a friend s apartment where she had spent the night when the shots rang out just after 4:00 am.
“I heard gunfire,” she said. “I could have been hit by a bullet. I never thought terrorists could have hid here.”
Dozens of soldiers had flooded into the area and heavily armed police were seen deploying along a street full of shops in the centre of the district, while ambulances and fire engines filled the streets.
Some residents were evacuated, some still in their underwear and authorities warned residents to keep away from windows.
The raid came as Europe was placed on high alert after footage from the scene of one of Friday s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 and injured 350, revealed a ninth suspect may have taken part.
It was not clear if the ninth man was one of two suspected accomplices detained in Belgium or was on the run, potentially with 26-year-old fugitive Frenchman Salah Abdeslam who took part in the attacks with his suicide-bomber brother Brahim.
Police also carried out multiple raids in southwestern France, in Ariege, Toulouse and the department of the Haute-Garonne.
The operations were part of an anti-terrorism strategy but not directly linked to the Paris attacks, an investigator told AFP.
Extending the emergency
French President Francois Hollande will hold discussions Wednesday on extending to three months the state of emergency declared after the worst attacks in French history. Lawmakers will vote on the proposal on Thursday and Friday.
In a sign of the nervousness gripping Europe after Friday s carnage, a football match between Germany and the Netherlands in Hanover was cancelled Tuesday and the crowd evacuated after police acted on a “serious” bomb threat.
As police stepped up the hunt for the fugitives, French and Russian jets pounded IS targets in the group s Syrian stronghold of Raqa for a third consecutive day.
France and Russia have vowed merciless retaliation for the Paris attacks and last month s bombing of a Russian airliner over the Egyptian Sinai peninsula which killed 229 people and was also claimed by the Islamic State group.
“It s necessary to establish direct contact with the French and work with them as allies,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said as France announced it was sending its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean on Wednesday.
The attacks have galvanised international resolve to destroy the jihadist group and end Syria s more than four-year civil war, while potentially restoring ties between Russia and France that had collapsed since last year s Ukraine crisis.
Moscow finally confirmed on Tuesday that the passenger jet that crashed over the Sinai peninsula was brought down by a bomb, though it did not name any responsible group.
Hollande will meet Putin in Moscow on November 26, two days after seeing US President Barack Obama in Washington.
France has invoked a previously unused European Union article to ask member states for help in its mission to fight back against the Islamic State organisation, which received unanimous backing from Brussels.
The alliance comes as international players meet to discuss ways of ending the Syrian war, which has spurred the rise of the Islamic State group, forced millions into exile and triggered Europe s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
On a solidarity visit to Paris, US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “big transition” in Syria was probably only weeks away after Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia reached agreement at the weekend on a path towards elections.
Highlighting US fears over the attack, two Air France flights bound for Paris from the United States were diverted Tuesday and landed safely after anonymous threats that the carrier described as a “bomb scare”.