SAINT DENIS, France (Reuters) - A woman suicide bomber blew herself up in a police raid on Wednesday that sources said had foiled a jihadi plan to hit Paris’s business district, days after a wave of attacks killed 129 across the French capital.
Police stormed an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis before dawn in a hunt for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian militant accused of masterminding the bombings and shootings, but by evening it was still unclear if he had died in the assault.
Heavily armed officers triggered a massive firefight and multiple explosions when they entered the building. Eight people were arrested and forensic scientists were working to confirm if two or three militants had died in the violence.
“A new team of terrorists has been neutralized,” Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters on Wednesday evening, saying police had fired 5,000 rounds of munitions into the apartment, which was left shredded by the raid, its windows blown out and the facade riddled with bullet impacts.
“This commando could have become operational,” Molins said.
A source close to the investigation said the dead woman might have been Abaaoud’s cousin, while the Washington Post quoted senior intelligence officials as saying Abaaoud himself had died in the shoot out.
Molins said none of the bodies had been identified, adding only that Abaaoud was not amongst those detained.
In a sign too that Islamic State supporters were active elsewhere in France, a Jewish teacher was stabbed in the southern French port of Marseilles by three people professing solidarity with the militant group, prosecutors said.
One of the three wore an Islamic State t-shirt while another attacker showed a picture on his mobile telephone of Mohamed Merah, a homegrown Islamist militant who killed seven people in attacks in southern France in 2012. The Marseilles teacher’s life was not in danger.
Police were led to the apartment in St. Denis following a tip-off that the 28-year-old Abaaoud, previously thought to have orchestrated the Nov. 13 attacks from Syria, was actually in France.
Investigators believe the attacks — the worst atrocity in France since World War Two — were set in motion in Syria, with Islamist cells in neighboring Belgium organizing the mayhem.
Local residents spoke of their fear and panic as the shooting started in St. Denis just after 4.15 a.m. (0315 GMT).
“We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake,” Sabrine, a downstairs neighbor from the apartment that was raided, told Europe 1 radio.
Molins said an initial attempt to blow in the front door in had failed because it was metal-plated, giving those inside time to pick up their guns and fight back. The confrontation was so violent part of the apartment was in danger of collapsing.
Another local, Sanoko Abdulai, said that as the operation gathered pace, a young woman detonated an explosion.
“She had a bomb, that’s for sure. The police didn’t kill her, she blew herself up...,” he told Reuters, without giving details. Five police officers and a passerby were injured in the assault. A police dog was also killed.
Islamic State, which controls swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, saying they were in retaliation for French air raids against their positions over the past year.
France has called for a global coalition to defeat the radicals and has launched three air strikes on Raqqa — the de-facto Islamic State capital in northern Syria — since the weekend. Russia has also targeted the city in retribution for the downing of a Russian airliner last month that killed 224.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Wednesday the bombardments have killed at least 33 Islamic State militants over the past three days.
Citing activists, the Observatory said Islamic State members and dozens of families of senior members had started fleeing Raqqa to relocate to Mosul in neighboring Iraq.
French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday — four Frenchmen and a man who was fingerprinted in Greece last month after arriving in the country via Turkey with a boatload of refugees fleeing the Syria war.
Police believe two men directly involved in the assault subsequently escaped, including Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is accused of having played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.
French authorities said on Wednesday they had identified all the Nov. 13 victims. They came from 17 different countries, many of them young people out enjoying themselves at bars, restaurants, a concert hall and a soccer stadium.
Empowered by a state of emergency introduced in France last Friday, police here have made hundreds of raids across the country over the past three days, arresting 60 suspects, putting 118 under house arrest and seizing 75 weapons.
Until Wednesday morning, officials had said Abaaoud was in Syria. He grew up in Brussels, but media said he moved to Syria in 2014 to fight with Islamic State. Since then he has traveled back to Europe at least once and was involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium foiled by the police last January.
Two police sources and a source close to the investigation told Reuters that the St. Denis cell was planning a fresh attack. “This new team was planning an attack on La Defense,” one source said, referring to a high-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris that is home to top banks and businesses.
A man in St. Denis told reporters that he had rented out the besieged apartment to two people last week.
“Someone asked me a favor, I did them a favor. Someone asked me to put two people up for three days and I did them a favor, it’s normal. I don’t know where they came from I don’t know anything,” the man told Reuters Television.
He was later arrested by police.
Global anxiety was reflected in a flurry of new security alerts on Wednesday.
Sweden raised its threat level by one step to four on a scale of five, the high-speed Eurostar train that connects Paris and London briefly suspended check-in at Paris’s Gare du Nord and several German Bundesliga soccer teams said they were beefing up security ahead of their matches.
The Russian air force on Wednesday carried out a “mass strike” on Islamic State positions around Syria, including Raqqa, Russian news agencies reported.
Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their air strikes in Syria, but French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26 to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.
Hollande will meet U.S. President Barack Obama, who says Russia must shift its focus from “propping up” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, two days before that in Washington.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that Western nations had to drop their demands for Assad’s exit if they wanted to build a coalition against Islamic State.
Russia is allied to Assad but the West says he must go if there is to be a political solution to Syria’s prolonged civil war. Hollande said countries should set aside their sometimes diverging national interests to battle their common foe.
“The international community must rally around that spirit. I know very well that each country doesn’t have the same interests,” he told an assembly of city mayors on Wednesday.
A French aircraft carrier group was headed to the eastern Mediterranean to intensify the number of strikes in Syria. Russia has said its navy will cooperate with this mission.
Additional reporting by Andrew Callus, Matthias Blamont, Marine Pennetier, Emmanuel Jarry, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Jean-Baptiste Vey, Chine Labbé, Svebor Kranjc, John Irish in Paris, Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels, and Matt Spetalnick in Manila, Victoria Cavaliere and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Amran Abocar in Toronto and Dan Wallis in Denver; Writing by Alex Richardson and Crispian Balmer; Editing by Andrew Callus, Sonya Hepinstall, Philippa Fletcher and Richard Balmforth