, BRUSSELS, Feb 5 – When their battering ram finally smashed the lock of the Brussels apartment, the police officers were faced with an almost empty room — just a cupboard and a few mattresses. Then a gun barrel emerged in a door frame and a man burst out, opening fire.
The eight investigators who went to the middle-class Forest neighbourhood of Brussels for a routine search on March 15, 2016, were not expecting to be met with a hail of bullets.
Without realising it they had just stumbled on the hideout of the most wanted man in Europe — the last surviving suspect from the November 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam.
The French-Belgian team investigating the massacre in Paris were searching for old hideouts used by the jihadist militants who gunned down 130 people in France’s deadliest ever terror attack.
Utilities at the Forest flat had been cut two months earlier, so police thought it was empty, though when they arrived at the nondescript three-storey building a little after 2 pm, the family on the ground floor told them “some young people” were living there.
After getting no answer when they knocked, police took the decision to break the door down, triggering the shootout.
The gunman who burst out, shaven-headed with a thick beard, was firing a Kalashnikov from the hip. The police fired back, hitting him, forcing him to take cover in a second room. Three officers were also wounded — one in the hip, one in the hand and a third in the head and the foot.
– Fingerprints –
The police team decided to pull out — some back through the entrance, the rest through the attic and onto the roofs.
The drama stunned the quiet street next to a little tree-lined square, neighbours cowering in fear in their homes.
One resident who ignored warnings and got closer saw two men escaping over the rooftops during the shootout. “One of them had a beard and was carrying a gun,” he said. They fled down the back of a building.
But for the police, dealing with the gunman holed up in the flat was the priority. This was a job for special units dispatched to the scene. Twice they tried to flush him out only to be forced back by his gunfire. On the third attempt, around 6:15 pm, the man appeared in a window and a police sniper shot him.
He was quickly identified: Mohamed Belkaid, an Algerian who had been in contact with the Paris attackers.
A search of the Forest apartment turned up 11 Kalashnikov magazines and two detonators, but more importantly it also found fingerprints — those of Abdeslam, hunted by police for four months.
– End of the road –
Police concluded he must have been one of the men who had just escaped, but now they knew he was in Brussels. And moreover, he had made a mistake — a phone call the same day to a cousin, Abid Aberkane, looking for a place to hide with his accomplice.
“He just told me he had escaped on foot from Forest, that’s all,” the cousin later told police.
Aberkane agreed to hide the pair, first in his car and later in the cellar of his mother’s house, a small building in the gritty immigrant district of Molenbeek close to Abdeslam’s parents’ home.
For two days the two fugitives hid in the basement, talking in hushed voices and sleeping on an old carpet. The cousin brought sandwiches, pizzas and fizzy drinks to keep them going.
He also attended the March 17 funeral in Brussels of Brahim Abdeslam, Salah’s brother and one of the Paris attackers.
On March 18, three days after the initial shootout, with EU leaders meeting at a summit nearby, the Belgian police found the hideout. The area was locked down and special police units surrounded the entrance, ordering the fugitives to surrender.
Suddenly, a man burst out wearing a white sweater and cap and black trousers. He tried to flee but fell to the pavement under police fire.
The second fugitive, wearing a grey tracksuit, wounded in the leg, stayed in the building. Once arrested he was identified as Sofiane Ayari, a Tunisian born in 1993.
The man in white lying wounded on the ground was Salah Abdeslam. The long hunt for the last Paris suspect was over.