SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — A woman wearing an explosive suicide vest blew herself up as heavily armed police tried to storm a suburban Paris apartment where the suspected mastermind of last week’s attacks was believed to be holed up, police said Wednesday.
They said one man was also killed and two people arrested in the standoff, which began in the early hours of the morning and was continuing more than four hours later.
A senior police official said he believed Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian Islamic State militant, was inside the apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis with five other heavily armed people.
The official, who was not authorized to be publicly named according to police rules but is informed routinely about the operation, said scores of police stormed the building and were met with unexpectedly violent resistance.
Another police official said a woman wearing an explosive suicide vest blew herself up, and a man was also killed.
The official, not authorized to be publicly named because of police rules, said four police officers had been injured. No hostages were being held.
Residents said a first explosion shook the neighborhood at about 4 a.m. (0300GMT).
“Then there was second big explosion. Then two more explosions. There was an hour of gunfire,” said Baptiste Marie, a 26-year-old independent journalist who lives in the neighborhood.
Another witness, Amine Guizani, said he heard the sound of grenades and automatic gunfire.
“They were shooting for an hour. Nonstop. There were grenades. It was going, stopping. Kalashnikovs. Starting again,” Guizani said.
Sporadic bangs and explosions continued, and at 6:30 a.m. at least seven explosions shook the center of Saint-Denis. Associated Press reporters at the scene could hear what sounded like grenade blasts from the direction of the standoff.
Investigators have identified 27-year-old Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the chief architect of Friday’s attacks in Paris.
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 many months.
Police vans and fire trucks rushed to the scene north of Paris. The site is less than two kilometers (just over a mile) from the Stade de France stadium, which was targeted by three suicide bombers during Friday’s attacks.
Police cordoned off the area nearby, including a pedestrian zone lined with shops and 19th-century apartment buildings. Riot police cleared people from the streets, pointing guns at curious residents to move them off the roads.
Saint-Denis Mayor Didier Paillard said public transport was suspended and that schools in the center of town would not open Wednesday.
Seven attackers died in Friday’s gun-and-bomb rampage through Paris that killed at least 129 people and left over 350 wounded. The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the carnage.
Police say they are hunting for two fugitives suspected of taking part as well as any accomplices. That would bring the number of attackers to at least nine.
French authorities had previously said that at least eight people were directly involved in the bloodshed: seven who died in the attacks and one who got away and slipped across the border to Belgium.
However, there have been gaps in officials’ public statements, which have never fully disclosed how many attackers took part in the deadly rampage.
On Tuesday, officials told The Associated Press they now believe at least one other attacker was involved and they were working to identify and track down that suspect. Three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to provide details about the ongoing investigation.
Surveillance video obtained by the AP also indicated 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 at large, 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 SEAT-make vehicle that was found Saturday with three Kalashnikovs inside.
Police have identified one subject of their manhunt as Salah Abdeslam, whom French police accidentally permitted to cross into Belgium on Saturday. One of his brothers, Brahim, blew himself up in Paris.