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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Terror suspect once Europe’s most wanted man set for trial in Brussels

Salah Abdeslam faces up to 40 years in prison if found guilty over shootout in Belgium months after Paris attacks

Salah Abdeslam, a suspect for the November 2015 Paris attacks, is due in court on Monday in Brussels accused over a shootout that led to his capture / AFP PHOTO / POLICE NATIONALE / DSK
Salah Abdeslam, a suspect for the November 2015 Paris attacks, is due in court on Monday in Brussels accused over a shootout that led to his capture / AFP PHOTO / POLICE NATIONALE / DSK

A suspected terrorist linked to the 2015 co-ordinated attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead goes on trial on Monday over a shoot-out with police after four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man.

Salah Abdeslam, 28, is accused of attempting to murder Belgian and French police officers who turned up at a property in Brussels for what they thought would be a routine search linked to the Paris attacks.

Mr Abdeslam is alleged to have escaped the shootout that left another militant dead and four police officers wounded in the Forest district of Brussels but was captured three days later in another part of the city.

The trial in Brussels – for which he faces up to 40 years in prison if found guilty – deals with only the shootout that led to his capture. He is due to stand trial at a later date in France over his alleged involvement in the devastating attacks on the French capital in November 2015.

His older brother Brahim died during the Paris attacks which targeted the Stade de France sports stadium and the Bataclan music venue where ISIL-sympathisers sprayed concert goers with bullets killing 89.

Brahim died when he detonated explosives outside a bar, seriously injuring two people

Mr Abdeslam had been sought since the day after the attacks when surveillance footage captured him returning to Belgium. Reports suggested that he was in a car with two accomplices which was pulled over close to the Belgian-Paris border but was let go after background checks did not highlight links to extremism.

He was finally detained during a raid in the western Brussels district of Molenbeek, a deprived area of high unemployment and hotbed of militant activity in the Belgian capital, where he used to run a bar with his brother.

Mr Abdeslam is accused of “attempted murder in a terrorist context” at the trial in Brussels which will surrounded by high levels of security. The city is also home to EU institutions and the NATO headquarters.

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Prosecutors believe that he was also associated with three men who blew themselves up at Brussels Airport and on the city’s metro system in March 2016 that left 32 people dead. His arrest was believed to be the trigger for the attacks four days later.

Reports have suggested that Mr Abdeslam’s role in the Paris attacks involved renting cars and apartments, and of helping members of the team get to Europe. He has refused to answer questions to investigators after being returned to France from Belgium.

Abdeslam is currently being held in solitary confinement in France and will be brought by armoured vehicle from a high-security prison in France for every day of the trial.

The estimated four-day trial could result in further embarrassment for the Belgian authorities whose security agencies and police were criticised over the failure to track down and capture Abdeslam after the Paris attacks.

An internal Belgian police report said police had warned their superiors in early 2015 that the brothers were radicalised having linked them to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the ringleader of the Paris attacks and a known ISIL member. Abdeslam and Abaaoud had served in the same jail for armed robbery.

The Paris and Brussels attacks highlighted shortcomings in Belgian intelligence gathering and staff shortages. Europol, the EU’s policing intelligence agency, admitted that the Paris attacks showed that the exchange of information “needs improving” after recriminations over the failure to trace members of the Paris gang.

The attacks also cast a light on problems of integration and radicalisation in Belgium, which had one of the highest proportions of extremist fighters heading to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of ISIL.