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[PARIS] At least two people were killed and five arrested in a predawn raid targeting the suspected mastermind of last week's terrorist violence, as an international manhunt led investigators back to the very Paris suburb where the first of the attacks took place.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a 20-something Belgian citizen, was believed to be holed up in an apartment with several other people in Saint Denis, said Agnes Thibault-Lecuivre, spokeswoman for the Paris prosecutor. Friday's attacks, the deadliest terrorist assault in peacetime France, had begun at the nearby Stade de France.
Wednesday's operation began at 4.20 am in a small pedestrian street in the heart of the old town, near the cathedral where French kings were entombed. The dead included a woman who blew herself up with a suicide vest. No police were killed. Of those taken into custody, three were in the apartment and two were taken nearby.
Five men were barricaded in the apartment and people living in the area were told to stay indoors and turn off their lights, according to France Info radio. Helicopters circled the area and sporadic shots were heard. From 8 a.m., President Francois Hollande tracked the operation with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve from his office at the Elysee Palace.
According to France2 television, police identified the location using a mobile phone that was found outside the Le Bataclan concert hall in the 11th arrondissement where 89 people were killed on Friday.
Abaaoud, the son of a Moroccan shopkeeper, joined the ranks of the Islamic State a few years ago and called himself a "terrorist tourist" on his Facebook page. Boasting a high- profile on social media, Abbaoud is also linked by French officials to a failed assault on a Paris-bound high-speed train in August and a plot to attack a church in the city in April.
Belgian security officials began tracking him in March 2014 after he appeared in a video behind the wheel of a pickup truck dragging mutilated bodies to a mass grave in Syria.
The attacks on Friday at seven sites in the Paris area killed 129 people and injured more than 300. French police have conducted a dragnet across the country since then, carrying out hundreds of raids and searches.
After French police arrested 23 suspected extremists in a nationwide crackdown on Monday and conducted 128 raids that night, the focus of the investigation had spread to Belgium and Germany. Security forces are seeking Salah Abdeslam, who police believe was an accomplice to the Paris attacks and whose brother Brahim Abdeslam has been named as one of the suicide bombers.
Belgian prosecutors on Monday charged two suspects detained after the attacks, while other searches in the Brussels district of Molenbeek failed to lead to new arrests. Seven people were arrested yesterday in a German town near the Belgian border before being released once police established that Abdeslam wasn't among them.
France has stepped up bombing of Islamic State targets since Friday, destroying a command center and a training site at the terror group's stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
As the raid was still ongoing, Environment and Energy Minister Segolene Royal told France 2 television that security will be increased on France's high-speed rail links as well as on international routes.