SAINT-DENIS, France — Heavily armed French SWAT teams swooped in Wednesday and neutralized a cell that was ready to launch new attacks, leaving at least two people dead after firing 5,000 rounds during an hourslong siege, a prosecutor said. Eight people were arrested.
The raid had targeted the suspected planner of the attacks, 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but his fate remained unclear.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the identities of the dead were still being investigated, but that neither Abaoud nor the fugitive attacker Salah Abdeslam was in custody.
“At this time, I’m not in a position to give a precise and definitive number for the people who died, nor their identities, but there are at least two dead people,” he told reporters.
Earlier, the prosecutor’s office had said the dead included a woman who detonated an explosive vest and a man hit by projectiles and grenades. But at a later news conference, Molins clarified the earlier statement that the woman blew herself up, saying: “This point needs to be verified by an analysis of the body and human remains, as well as by all the forensic police operations that have to be carried out.”
Molins said heavily armed police squads initially were thwarted by a reinforced door to the apartment in the Saint-Denis neighborhood north of Paris and faced nearly incessant fire as they worked to enter.
The prosecutor said the raid was launched after information from tapped telephone conversations, surveillance and witness accounts indicated that Abaaoud might be in a safe house in the Saint-Denis suburb.
Investigators have identified Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the chief architect of Friday’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and wounded 368 others.
A U.S. official briefed on intelligence matters said Abaaoud was a key figure in an Islamic State external operations cell that U.S. intelligence agencies have been tracking for months.
Abaaoud is believed to have escaped to Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but he has bragged in Islamic State propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.
The site of Wednesday’s raid is just over a mile from the Stade de France soccer stadium; three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium during an international soccer match Friday.
They were one of three teams of attackers who also targeted a rock concert at the Bataclan theater as well popular night spots in a trendy Paris neighborhood. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the carnage, which has left France in mourning and on edge.
On Wednesday, residents of Paris’ Saint-Denis neighborhood were shocked awake by an explosion at around 4:20 a.m.
Amine Guizani said the blast was followed by the sound of grenades and automatic gunfire.
“It was continuous. It didn’t stop,” he said. “It lasted from 4:20 until 5:30. It was a good hour. I couldn’t say how many shots were fired, but it was probably 500. Hundreds, definitely. There were maybe 10 explosions.”
Police cordoned off an area around the building in a narrow street lined with low-rise buildings. Riot police cleared people from the streets, pointing guns at residents to move them off the roads.
“We tried to stop our children hearing the noise,” said Farah Appane, who lives about 80 yards from where the raid took place. “My 19-month-old was crying. Our 8-year-old said ‘What is it? Are there more attacks?’”
She said she could hear gunfire on and off for over an hour, followed by “one really huge boom.”
“It was when the woman exploded herself. It made our apartment shake it was so strong,” Appane said
Molins said the operation began with a pre-dawn shootout and resulted in the arrest of eight people, including two found in the rubble and the man whose apartment was used as the cell’s hideaway.
Several police officers were slightly injured and a SWAT team police dog was killed in the operation. The National Police said in a tweet that the 7-year-old Belgian Malinois named Diesel was “killed by terrorists.”
Neither Molins nor French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve would say whether some attackers might still be on the loose.
French authorities had previously said that at least eight people were directly involved in the bloodshed: seven who died in the attacks and one, Salah Abdeslam, who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium. A Spanish security official said Wednesday that French authorities have sent out a bulletin to police across Europe asking them to watch out for a Citroen Xsara car that could be carrying Abdeslam.
French officials have told The Associated Press they believe at least one other attacker was involved in Friday’s carnage and is still at large, taking the number to at least nine.
Surveillance video obtained by the AP also indicates that a team of three attackers carried out the shootings at one of the cafes. The video was among evidence authorities used in concluding that at least one other attacker was on the loose, the French officials indicated.
The brief clip shows two black-clad gunmen with automatic weapons calmly firing on the bar then returning toward a waiting car, whose driver was maneuvering behind them. Authorities believe the car is the same black Spanish-made SEAT vehicle that was found Saturday with three Kalashnikovs inside.
The discrepancy in numbers adds to questions about how the cell was able to carry out its plot undetected.
French authorities have said most of the attackers identified so far were unknown to them. But two U.S. officials said that many, though not all, of the attackers identified so far were on the U.S. no-fly list. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The Paris attacks have galvanized international determination to confront the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, bringing France, Russia and the United States closer to an alliance.
Speaking after Wednesday’s raid, French President Francois Hollande praised the bravery of the security services and said that France was “at war” with IS, which he called a global threat.
“It is the entire country that’s been attacked,” Hollande told a gathering of French mayors. “For what it represents, the fight we are leading to eradicate terrorism. And simply for what we are.”
French fighter jets attacked Islamic State targets in Syria for a third night, the defense ministry said. Hollande said French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had left to support military operations against IS in Syria.
He called for a “large coalition” against IS militants to destroy a group that threatens the whole world and “commits massacres” in the Middle East.
On Wednesday, France’s justice minister updated the overall number of wounded in the Paris attacks to 368 people, up from 352. The health minister said 195 people remained hospitalized, 41 in intensive care and three in critical condition.
French authorities declared a state of emergency after the attacks, and security forces have conducted 414 raids, making 60 arrests and seizing 75 weapons, including 11 military-style firearms, the Interior Ministry said.
Parliament is expected to vote by the end of the week to extend the state of emergency for three months.
France – and the rest of Europe – remains on edge.
Two Air France flights bound for Paris from the U.S. were diverted Tuesday night – one to Salt Lake City and one to Halifax – because of anonymous threats received after they had taken off. Both were inspected and cleared to resume their journeys.
On Wednesday, anxiety rippled through Saint-Denis, a historic area where French kings were crowned and buried through the centuries in the majestic Gothic basilica. The district is home to a vibrant and ethnically diverse population and sees sporadic tension between police and violent youths.
As autumn sunshine lit up the basilica’s stone tower, cameramen, police and residents waited nervously in the central Place Victor Hugo, as sirens echo around the neighborhood.
“This is crazy-- the only time I’ve seen this square so full was for a wedding,” said Madeleine Frachon, an 80-year-old resident.
“We’ve lived here 58 years. It used to be very different here, I’ll tell you,” she said. “I hope this will mean Saint-Denis will get cleaned up. It’s high time.”