French prosecutors have confirmed that 27-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the extremist that is accused of being the mastermind behind the recent Paris terror attacks, was among those killed during the Wednesday morning raid on an apartment in Saint-Denis.
Forensic experts combed through the aftermath of the seven-hour gun battle for DNA and fingerprint evidence to get the evidence after two terrorists were “blown to bits” and seven others surrendered.
During the siege and storming of the apartment, French officials say over 5,000 rounds of ammunition and multiple grenades were expended as the commandos decisively stormed in and killed two of the suspected terrorists.
One of the dead, a women officials identified as Hasna Aitboulahcen, was the cousin of Abaaoud and blew herself up with a suicide vest after French forces opened fire.
The second dead suspect, Abaaoud, was killed while desperately holed up and cowering in the apartment.
Police launched the operation after receiving information from tapped phone calls, surveillance and tipoffs suggesting that Abaaoud was hiding in an apartment in Paris’ Saint-Denis neighborhood.
Residents awoke to gunfire and grenade explosions as a SWAT team swooped in and “neutralized” what Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins called a “new team of terrorists” that appeared ready for a new attack.
The site of Wednesday’s raid is not far from the Stade de France soccer stadium; three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the stadium during an international soccer game as part of the attacks last Friday that left 129 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Five police were wounded and a SWAT team dog was killed in the intense gunbattle during which the third floor of the apartment building collapsed.
Residents described hunkering down in fear.
“We tried to stop our children hearing the noise,” said Farah Appane, who lives about 80 yards (meters) from where the raid took place. “My 19-month-old was crying. Our 8-year-old said ‘What is it? Are there more attacks?'”
She said she could hear gunfire on and off for over an hour, followed by “one really huge boom.”
The head of one of the special forces units that took part in the raid, Jean-Michel Fauverge, said police used drones and robots equipped with cameras in an attempt to see what was going on inside during the raid but there was too much debris.
When they entered the building they found a body that had fallen from the third floor to the second, he told the French newspaper Le Figaro.
“The corpse was mutilated, probably from grenades and he wasn’t recognizable,” Fauverge said. “Other people were in the stairwell, two men hiding under blankets and whatever they could find. We arrested them.”
Molins said five men were taken into custody in the apartment building, including two who were pulled from the rubble. A woman and two other men, including the man whose apartment was used as the cell’s hideout, were arrested on a nearby street.
Investigators have identified Abaaoud, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, as the chief architect of the attacks Friday against the soccer stadium, a crowded concert hall and popular night spots in a trendy Paris neighborhood.
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 months.
Abaaoud is believed to have escaped to Syria after a January police raid in Belgium, but he has bragged in Islamic State propaganda of his ability to move back and forth between Europe and Syria undetected.
Speaking after the seven-hour siege ended, French President Francois Hollande praised the bravery of the security services and said that France was “at war” with the Islamic State group, which has claimed responsibility for the attacks. He called for an international coalition to destroy the group, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq.
French authorities have said seven attackers were killed Friday — six who blew themselves up and one who was killed by police. Abdeslam got away, as well as possibly another, so far unidentified, assailant, officials said.
Molins said Wednesday that investigators found a cell phone in a garbage can outside the Bataclan concert hall where 89 of the victims of Friday’s carnage died. It contained a text message sent about 20 minutes after the massacre began. “We’re off, it’s started,” it read.
French authorities declared a state of emergency after the attacks, and security forces have conducted 414 raids, making 60 arrests and seizing 75 weapons, including 11 military-style firearms, the Interior Ministry said. Parliament is expected to vote by the end of the week to extend the state of emergency for three months.
The Associated Press contributed to this story