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France hails Abdeslam arrest but Belgium's four-month manhunt criticised

media A man who appears to be Salah Abdeslam is dragged from the Brussels apartment Reuters

The arrest of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam is a "major blow" to the Islamic State (IS) armed group in Europe, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneueve said Saturday after a top-level meeting called by President François Hollande. He praised Belgian authorities for a "flawless" commitment to capturing Abdeslam but reports indicate that they found him almost by accident, after searching for more than four months.

"The operations of the past week have enabled us to incapacitate several individuals who are clearly extremely dangerous and totally determined," Cazeneuve said on after a French Defence Committee meeting on Saturday and he praised the Belgians' efforts.

"I hail the great success of Belgian security forces and compliment the high level of Belgian-French cooperation in the counterterror fight," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Twitter.

But Abdeslam had evaded police since the attacks on 13 November and, according to reports, Belgian police stumbled upon his hiding place almost by chance.

Europe's most-wanted man appears to have escaped a first raid on a flat in the Brussels neighbourhood of Forest on Tuesday by fleeing over the rooftops.

To read our coverage of the November Paris attacks and their aftermath click here

Police went to that first hideout, whose water and electriticy had been cut off, believing that it was not in use, according to Le Monde newspaper.

They suspected that it had been rented under the name of Khalid El Bakraoui, an apparently stolen or fictitious identity that was also used to rent an apartment in the Belgian city of Charleroi where the attackers stayed briefly on the day before the Paris attacks.

But the flat in Forest was occupied and police, some of them French team according to BFMTV, came under intense fire, leading to the death of Algerian suspect Mohamed Belkaid and the wounding of four police officers.

Abdeslam's fingerprints, along with those of an accomplice who has been arrested but whose true identity remains unknown, were found in the apartment and the search was stepped up a notch.

The pair were finally tracked down on Friday in Molenbeek, the Brussels district where Abdeslam and his brother Brahim had lived and run a bar, after intercepting a phone call he made to a friend, Le Monde says.

When Belgian police broke into the apartment, they were greeted with the cry "I am Salah Abdeslam!" and the suspect, who had apparently dumped most of his weapons while on the run, was dragged from the building, having sustained a slight injury in the leg.

His accomplice and three members of the family that owned the flat were also arrested.

What took so long?

Abdeslam was subject to a European arrest warrant, issued in Paris on 24 November, and was probably frightened of contacting IS because he seems to have backed out on committing a suicide attack.

But he clearly had collaborators in Brussels, where police had already missed him, once in Moenbeek and once in Scharbeek, where his fingerprints were found in December, and he managed to stay hidden for four months.

He and an accomplice also managed to pass through three roadblocks on his flight to Belgium after the attacks.

"Either Salah Abdeslam is very clever or the Belgian services are stupid, which is more likely," French MP Alain Marsaud commented after the capture.

The French security services are also under the spotlight - Marsaud, a member of the right-wing Republicans, is a member of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into possible security failings over the November attacks.

Abdeslam to fight extradition

After being discharged from hospital on Saturday, Abdeslam was formally charged by a Belgian magistrate with involvement in the attacks.

His lawyer, Sven Mary, said he would fight the extradition attempt but confirmed that his client was in Paris on 13 November.

Interpol called for "extra vigilance" at border controls on Saturday.

"The capture of the 26-year-old Belgian-born French national ... may encourage any accomplices to attempt to flee Europe, or elsewhere," the world police body warned the 190 countries it covers.

Two known suspects are still on the run Mohamed Abrini, who has joint Belgian and Moroccan nationality, and a man whose fake papers name him as Soufiane Kayal, an identity used to rent an apartment used by the attackers in the Belgian city of Namur.
Both are believed to have been in telephone contact with the people involved on the evening of 13 November.

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