Fugitive in Paris attacks likely used Brussels apartment as bomb factory

BRUSSELS -- A Brussels apartment was likely used to make bombs for the Paris attacks, and one of the plotters also hid out there after escaping a police dragnet, Belgian prosecutors said Friday.

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The prosecutors said they found Salah Abdeslam's fingerprint in a search of the apartment on Dec. 10, but don't know when he last holed up there. An international manhunt is ongoing for the 26-year-old Brussels native, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

The search of the apartment also turned up three suspected suicide belts, traces of the same explosive used in the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 people and other material that could be used to manufacture bombs, according to the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office.

Federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said authorities decided to release the information after more than a month to dispel inaccuracies published by some Belgian media. Refusing to disclose specifics, he said the evidence acquired in the apartment "has helped us get further in the investigation."

Van der Sypt said the third-floor apartment was likely used as a hideout after Abdeslam fled the attacks. Abdeslam, whose older brother Braham was one of the Paris suicide bombers, called for two friends to pick him up in Paris amid the bloodshed and chaos that night that left 130 people dead and hundreds injured.

"We found material to make explosives, we found traces of explosives and we found three belts. So you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to make the right deduction," Van der Sypt told The Associated Press.

Abdeslam is believed to have played a key logistical role in the Paris carnage. A French gendarme stopped him and his two friends in their car near the border but released them. The friends are among 10 people arrested in Belgium in connection with the attacks.

Authorities now believe Abdeslam returned to the apartment, was eventually picked up by someone else "and we lost trace," Van der Sypt said.

The apartment in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood of Brussels had been rented under a false identity that may have been used by one of those who are now under arrest.

The prosecutor's office said the three handmade belts discovered in the search of the residence in the Rue Henri Berge, a quiet residential street flanked on both sides by row houses, "could have been intended for the transport of explosives."

Traces of the highly volatile TATP, which was packed into the suicide vests in November, were found on a piece of cloth, Van der Sypt said, as well as other material that could be used to manufacture explosives.

He said plastic bottles cut in half and containing an unknown substance were also discovered in the apartment, and are being tested by forensic specialists.

The Nov. 13 attacks marked the height of a violent year for France that began with a Jan. 7 assault on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.

Paris was again jolted Thursday when a man wearing a fake explosives vest and wielding a butcher's knife ran up to a police station and was shot to death by officers standing guard.

The Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, said investigators are unsure of the man's true identity.

Molins told France-Inter radio Friday that the assailant carried a paper marked with the Muslim declaration of faith, an emblem of the Islamic State group and a name, and gave his nationality as Tunisian. Molins said he also had a phone with a German SIM card.

Police are "working on the hypothesis" that the assailant is a man who was involved in a minor 2013 robbery in the southern Var region, according to a French security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

The official said that the fingerprints of the dead attacker matched those of the robbery suspect, who identified himself at the time as Ali Sallah of Casablanca, Morocco.

Islamic State extremists have claimed responsibility for the January 2015 attacks and the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.

Belgian authorities said Friday they are concerned about the possibility of new attacks in their country to mark the anniversary of the Jan. 15, 2015 police raid in the eastern city of Verviers that foiled a suspected plot by Islamic extremists. Two returnees from Syria were killed in that action, and a third arrested.

"We obviously take into account these symbolic dates, because they (the extremists) are in search of symbols," Frederic Van Leeuw, Belgium's chief counterterrorism prosecutor, told RTL television.

Associated Press writers Lori Hinnant and Philippe Sotto in Paris and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed.


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