The suspected sole surviving gunman from 2015 attacks in Paris has come close to admitting his role in the carnage in a rare statement to investigators in which he justified the killings, reports said on Friday.
Salah Abdeslam, in custody in France over the November 2015 attacks that left 130 people dead, has refused to cooperate with French judges ever since his arrest five months after the atrocities.
But on Thursday he recorded a statement in which he parroted the propaganda of Islamist extremist groups such as Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, a sports stadium and bars in the French capital.
“We don’t attack you because you eat pork, you drink wine or you listen to music, but Muslims defend themselves against those people who attack us,” Abdeslam said, according to the RTL and France Inter radio stations.
They quoted a lawyer, Jean Reinhart, who is representing the victims of the attacks and has access to the case files.
“Put your anger to one side and think about it a few minutes,” Abdeslam said in comments addressed to the dead and injured. “You are suffering from the mistakes made by your leaders.”
In April, a Belgian court sentenced Abdeslam, a French national of Moroccan origin, to 20 years in prison over a gun battle with police in his hometown of Brussels where he was arrested in March 2016.
At the opening of his trial, Abdeslam defied his judges, claiming to place his “trust in Allah and that is all”.
Abdeslam was a pot-smoking delinquent in the crime-ridden district of Molenbeek in Brussels until he became radicalised by Islamic State propaganda around his 25th birthday in 2014, investigators believe.
His Belgian lawyer revealed in 2016 that he had never read the Koran and said he had “the intelligence of an empty ashtray.”
He has been held in solitary confinement in France ahead of a trial which is expected in 2019.
The only surviving suspect in the 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, defied Belgian judges on Monday and said he put his “trust in Allah” on the opening day of his trial for a shootout that led to his capture.
The 28-year-old, who was transferred under heavy security from a jail near the French capital overnight for the trial, refused to answer questions about the gunbattle in Brussels or stand for the court.
“I am not afraid of you, I am not afraid of your allies,” said a defiant Abdeslam, who has grown long hair and a beard during his nearly two years behind bars. “I put my trust in Allah and that’s all.”
The Belgian-born French national of Moroccan descent alleged that the court in Brussels was biased against Muslims as he explained why he would not cooperate despite having asked to attend the trial.
“My silence does not make me a criminal, it’s my defence,” Abdeslam said. “Muslims are judged and treated in the worst of ways, mercilessly. There is no presumption of innocence.”
He also refused to allow photographs or video images to be taken of him.
He has point-blank refused to speak to investigators since his arrest in Brussels March 2016, three days after the gunbattle in the Forest district of the city for which he is on trial.
Abdeslam and Sofiane Ayari, a 24-year-old Tunisian arrested with him, face charges of attempted terrorist murder of police officers and carrying banned weapons.
Three police officers were wounded and an Algerian fellow jihadist was killed.
The pair faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.
– Heavy security –
Abdeslam’s arrest ended four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man following the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people, and in which his brother Brahim carried out a suicide bombing.
Police officers wearing body armour and black balaclavas with eye- and mouth-holes stood guard next to them as the trial started.
Abdeslam, wearing a long-sleeved light shirt and dark trousers, launched into his diatribe after presiding judge Marie-France Keutgen asked why he insisted on attending the trial where he refused to answer questions about the charges against him.
The judge rejected his accusations of bias, insisting he was presumed innocent.
Hundreds of members of Belgian security forces turned the Palais de Justice court building into a virtual fortress while a helicopter with searchlights circled overhead as he arrived.
The non-jury trial is the prelude to a later one in France and prosecutors hope the Brussels case will yield clues not only about the Paris attacks but also the Brussels bombings on March 22, 2016.
Investigators believe Abdeslam’s capture three days after the shootout caused members of his jihadist cell to bring forward plans for the attacks on Brussels airport and a metro station in which 32 people were killed.
Ayari, who is cooperating with authorities, told the judge he knew Ibrahim Bakroui, one of the suicide bombers at Brussels airport, adding he visited the apartment where the shootout occurred.
The same cell is believed to have been behind both the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were claimed by the Islamic State group.
But Ayari — who entered Europe via the Greek islands during the European migration crisis in 2015 — insisted: “I don’t think I am a radical.”
– Manhunt –
The plans for transferring Abdeslam from Fleury-Merogis prison in the Parisian suburbs, and then back to a prison just across the border in northern France every night, were shrouded in secrecy.
Two separate convoys left Fleury-Merogis in the middle of the night with an escort of elite French officers with blue lights flashing, while a third group of unmarked vehicles left shortly afterwards.
The boyish former bar owner has spent nearly 20 months in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance at Fleury-Merogis, after being transferred to France after his arrest.
Police say Abdeslam and Ayari escaped through the back door of the flat in Forest while a third suspect, Algerian Mohamed Belkaid, died while providing covering fire for their escape through a back door.
Police say they found Abdeslam’s fingerprints in the flat, confirming they were on the trail of the last suspect in the rifle and bomb attacks on the Bataclan concert hall, bars, restaurants and the national stadium in the French capital on November 13, 2015.
Abdeslam is reported to have disposed of a suicide belt before fleeing. He is also suspected of being the driver in the attacks.
Three days after the raid, armed officers shot Abdeslam in the leg and captured him and Ayari just yards from Abdeslam’s home in Molenbeek, a gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood.
The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, says European countries must ‘wake up’ to terror threats.
He spoke after it emerged that the suspected Belgian ringleader of the attacks had entered France undetected.
Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, has, however, defended Belgium’s security services amid claims the attacks were organised there.
The defence came as EU Interior Ministers are due to hold emergency talks.
The meeting in Brussels is expected to tighten checks at the external borders of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area.
French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, said that the EU’s cherished passport-free Schengen zone would be in danger if the bloc did not improve border controls, after it emerged the ringleader of the Paris attacks had managed to enter Europe unnoticed.
It was confirmed on Thursday that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan origin linked to a series of extremist plots in Europe over the past two years, had died in a police raid on an apartment in northern Paris on Wednesday.
As debate raged about the failings that had let Abaaoud slip through the net, Valls urged France’s neighbours to “play their role properly”, saying the whole Schengen system would be called into question if Europe does not take responsibility for its borders.
The Schengen system allows passport-free travel between 26 countries, but it has come under severe strain this year, as the continent struggles with its biggest migration crisis since World War II.
Paris prosecutor says the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, has been identified as one of those killed in a raid in Saint Denis.
His body was found riddled with bullets and shrapnel in an apartment in the northern Paris suburb on Wednesday.
The 27-year-old Belgian national, was identified from his fingerprints.
The fate of Abdelhamid Abaaoud was earlier unknown after Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, revealed that the suspect was not among the eight people arrested during the raid in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis.
President Francois Hollande declared the state of emergency for 12 days, after gunmen and suicide bombers targeted a concert hall, cafes and the Stade de France on Friday last week.
The attack claimed a total of 129 lives, leaving many others in critical conditions.
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has said that the country could face chemical or biological attack from terror groups.
French prosecutor says two persons have died including a suicide bomber in a raid of a flat at a scene of a police standoff in Saint Denis, following Friday’s attacks in Paris.
Three men have also been taken into custody by special forces and a man and woman have been arrested close to the St Denis flat.
Among those arrested by police is the possible owner of the apartment where the suspects are believed to have been holed up in Saint-Denis, AFP reports.
The man, who was not named, said he provided accommodation for two people in the apartment at 8 Rue du Corbillon after a friend asked him to do so. She told him they came from Belgium and needed a place to stay.
The target of police action in the Paris suburb of St Denis is the Islamic State militant, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was initially thought to have orchestrated the Paris attacks from Syria, police and justice sources said.
French media also reported that at least two people had been killed. There are also reports of a woman who detonated a suicide belt.
People living in or near St Denis have been subjected to rigorous security checks, as the operation in the suburb continues. The area itself has been sealed by the military.
Shops and schools have also been closed and transport was suspended.
Police, however, said that they believe the suspected mastermind of last week’s attacks, Abaaoud, is holed up in an apartment in Saint Denis, along with up to five other heavily armed people.
The official, nonetheless, said that scores of police, who stormed the building early on Wednesday were met with unexpectedly violent resistance.
Reinforcements were summoned and several people were injured.
French investigators believe that a Moroccan-origin Belgian jihadist masterminded the Paris attacks which killed at least 129 people.
Abaaoud is thought to be in Syria now with the Islamic State (ISIS) group.
The 27-year-old, grew up in Molenbeek, a district of Brussels known for its many Arab immigrants, blighted by high unemployment and overcrowded housing.
He is an associate of Salah Abdeslam, who is on the run and whose brother Brahim, blew himself up in Paris.