At least three people died after heavy gunfire erupted in a northern Paris suburb early on Wednesday as police launched an operation to catch the mastermind behind the devastating wave of attacks across the French capital that left 129 people dead.
Around 50 French soldiers were deployed to the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, after a prolonged shootout . One of the people dead was a woman who blew herself up with a suicide belt, agencies reported. Three suspects have been arrested so far.
Sources said 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is thought to have pulled the strings from Syria, was strongly believed to be among a group of people holed up in an apartment in the northern suburb near the national soccer stadium, one of the sites attacked by suicide bombers last week.
The source said the operation was still under way shortly before 8 am (0700 GMT) and police were trying to “neutralise” two more suspects.
“There are men from RAID shooting from the rooftops,” Djihane, a neighbour, said on France Inter radio. “We’ve been told to lie on the floor and not go to the windows.”
Reports of the shoot out came hours after two Air France flights bound for Paris from the United States were diverted following anonymous threats that the carrier called a “bomb scare.”
An Airbus A-380 that departed from Los Angeles landed in Salt Lake City, where passengers and crew were deplaned and transferred to the terminal. A separate flight that left Dulles International Airport outside Washington was diverted to Halifax International Airport in Nova Scotia also because of an unspecified security concern.
French officials have conducted sweeping raids across Paris and Belgium in an effort to track the terrorists behind the coordinated terror strikes in Paris. Seven militants died in the assault. Two are known to be on the run.
The police have arrested at least 23 people and put over a hundred people under house arrest but have so far been unable to nab key terrorists behind the attack, including 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who gave the authorities the slip hours after the assault. Searches in Brussels have centred around the scruffy and multi-ethnic Molenbeek neighbourhood, where Abaaoud grew up.
The Islamic State – which admitted responsibility for the deadliest attacks on France since World War II – has been at the receiving end of ferocious bombing by France and Russia, especially in its de-facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.