February 2, 2018 / 10:54 AM / 15 days ago

Paris attacks suspect faces Belgian trial over Brussels shoot-out

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The prime surviving suspect in the Islamic State attacks which killed 130 people in Paris in 2015 goes on trial in Belgium on Monday, charged over a later shootout with Brussels police before he was arrested.

Salah Abdeslam, 28, a French citizen born and raised in the Belgian capital, is accused of “attempted murder in a terrorist context” over the Brussels shootout in March 2016, four months after he fled Paris on the night of the carnage during which his brother was among the suicide bombers.

Facing a later trial in France over the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks, he will be ferried daily from France under heavy security to the main courthouse in Brussels.

Prosecutors also believe he was associated with three men who blew themselves up at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro on March 22, 2016, four days after Abdeslam was arrested close to his family home. However, he and accomplice are only charged with wounding Belgian and French police who raided a suspected hideout in the city on March 15.

“For these acts, he may receive a sentence of up to 40 years in prison,” Luc Hennart, president of the French-speaking Brussels court of first instance, told Reuters television.

Abdeslam became Belgium’s most wanted man after surveillance footage caught him returning from France the day after an Islamist militant group that included his brother killed 130 people in coordinated gun and suicide bomb attacks in Paris.

Despite a massive police effort to find him, he evaded capture for four months before eventually being detained in a raid in the western Brussels district of Molenbeek, home to a large Muslim population mostly of Moroccan origin.

Three days before his arrest, prosecutors say he was one of three men holed up in an apartment in the southern Brussels borough of Forest when police arrived for what they believed would be a routine search linked to the Paris attacks.

Four police officers, including a French policewoman, were wounded and a suspect armed with an assault rifle was killed. Prosecutors say Abdeslam and an accomplice escaped.

The trial is set to trigger high security in a city that was hit by suicide bombings at its airport and on its metro system by members of the same Islamic State-inspired group on March 22, 2016.

More than 100 police are expected to be deployed in and around Brussels’ 19th century Palace of Justice, which dominates the skyline over the Renaissance city center.

“These are undeniably tough security measures, but they are simply the consequence of the police’s assessment of the security need for the trial,” Hennart said.

Abdeslam’s trial has been repeatedly postponed. Some Belgian media said there may be further delays after proceedings begin on Monday as lawyers ask for more time to prepare their cases.

Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Clement Rossignol; editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Andrew Roche

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