Paris attack suspect eludes police, complicating probe
BRUSSELS/PARIS – French police had three opportunities to catch a Belgian suspect in the Paris attacks and each time let him go, a defence lawyer said on Tuesday, adding to the missed signals complicating efforts to track down those behind an onslaught in which 129 people were killed.
Friday night’s attacks, claimed by Islamic State militants, raised security concerns around the world. Two Air France flights en route to Paris from the United States were diverted on Tuesday due to security issues.
Earlier, bomb fears had prompted German police to call off a football match between Germany and the Netherlands in Hanover two hours before kick-off on Tuesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been due to attend.
In Syria, France and Russia bombed targets to punish Islamic State for the coordinated Paris massacre and the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai on Oct. 31. In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people.
On the night of the attack in Paris, French police failed to capture Belgian Salah Abdeslam, believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the Paris attacks, despite having stopped the car in which he was riding three times during a massive manhunt, Xavier Carette, the driver’s lawyer, said.
Police apparently had no idea the passenger in the car would later be identified as having been linked to the attacks.
Speaking to Belgian broadcaster RTBF, Carette said his client, Mohammed Amri, suspected nothing when his friend Abdeslam, 26, called two hours after the attacks for a ride to Brussels and said his car had broken down. Amri is in police custody. Abdeslam remains at large.
“You know, when you’re on a car journey, you can talk about everything and nothing, listen to music, even smoke a joint, but at no time, no, they didn’t talk about that,” Carette said of the massacre. He said young Arab men are used to police stops.
French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month. Abdeslam is one of two men police believe were directly involved and who subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.
Islamic State said it carried out the attacks in retaliation for French and Russian air raids in Iraq and Syria. Investigators said the Paris plot was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.
ISLAMIC STATE STRONGHOLD HIT
Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening in the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.
Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.
The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.
“Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.
Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Obama said in Manila on Wednesday he wanted Moscow to shift its focus from propping up Syria’s government to fighting Islamic State and would discuss that with Putin.
A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants.
In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU’s mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.
The 28 EU member states accepted the French request, but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.
Late on Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said a Paris-bound Air France flight from Los Angeles had landed in Salt Lake City, where the passengers and crew were transferred to the terminal.
A separate flight that left Dulles International Airport outside Washington was diverted to Halifax International Airport in Nova Scotia, Canada, also because of an unspecified security concern, the FAA said.
Police in Hanover, Germany, said bomb fears prompted them to call off the football match between Germany and the Netherlands, but no arrests were made and no explosives were found.
“We had received specific indications that an attack with explosives was planned,” Hanover Police President Volker Kluwe told NDR state broadcaster. “We took them seriously, and that is why we took the measures.”
One of the Friday night targets was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly football match.
At London’s Wembley Stadium, lit up in the blue, white and red of the French flag, English football fans saluted their French opponents at a friendly football match on Tuesday by roaring out an emotional rendition of the “Marseillaise” national anthem.
England won the match, 2-0.
REFUGEES AN ISSUE
The discovery that at least one of the Paris gunmen was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece prompted several Western countries to begin to question their willingness to take in refugees.
Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives, worried about Islamist militant attacks, threatened to suspend President Barack Obama’s efforts to allow 10,000 more Syrian refugees into the United States.
Both Republicans and Democrats have voiced fears that housing refugees from a conflict zone in the Middle East could eventually leave the United States open to attacks like those staged by al Qaeda in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
Obama administration officials assured 34 governors on a conference call on Tuesday that refugees would undergo the most rigorous screening and security vetting of any category of traveller to the United States.
But Obama, at a news conference in Manila, said: “We are not well served when in response to a terrorist attack we descend into fear and panic.
“We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. The refugee debate is an example of us not being well served by some of the commentary taking place by officials back home and in the media.” -Reuters