SAINT DENIS, France – Gunfire and explosions shook the Paris suburb of St. Denis early on Wednesday as French police surrounded an apartment where a Belgian Islamist militant suspected of masterminding last week’s attacks in the French capital was believed to be holed up.
A woman died after detonating a bomb at the scene, the French prosecutors’ office said, adding that three people in the apartment had been arrested and two others seized nearby.
A judicial source said a second person had died in the pre-dawn raid, but there was no immediate official confirmation.
Heavily armed police and soldiers filled the streets of St. Denis, schools and shops were shuttered and residents in the heart of the district were ordered to stay at home.
Police and justice sources said the target of their operation was Islamic State militant Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was initially thought to have orchestrated Friday’s deadly Paris attacks from Syria.
Five hours after the first gunshots rang out in St. Denis, there was still no confirmation that he was in the area.
Local residents spoke of their fear and panic as the shooting started just before 4.30 a.m. (0330 GMT).
“We could see bullets flying and laser beams out of the window. There were explosions. You could feel the whole building shake,” said Sabrine, a downstairs neighbor from the apartment where at least one gunman was still believed to be holed up.
She told Europe 1 radio that she heard the people in the flat above talking to each other, running around and reloading their guns.
“I tried to hide my son beneath me but each time there was shooting he was clawing at my skin,” she said, adding that police eventually managed to get them to safety.
Three police officers and a passerby were injured in the assault, which was close to the Stade de France stadium which was one of the targets of the Nov. 13 attacks.
The coordinated series of bombings and shootings killed 129 people, the worst atrocity in France since World War Two. Investigators soon linked the attacks to a militant cell in Belgium which was in contact with Islamic State in Syria.
The group claimed responsibility for killings, saying they were in retaliation for French air raids in Syria and Iraq over the past year. France has called for a global coalition to defeat the radicals and has launched three large air strikes on Raqqa — the de-facto Islamic State capital in northern Syria.
French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday – four Frenchmen and a man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month.
But they now believe two men directly involved in the assault subsequently escaped.
Until Wednesday morning, officials had said Abaaoud was in Syria. He grew up in Brussels, but media said he moved to Syria in 2014 to fight with Islamic State. Since then he has traveled back to Europe at least once and was involved in a series of planned attacks in Belgium foiled by the police last January.
Wednesday’s operation came after a source with knowledge of the investigation said a cell phone had been found with a map of the music venue targeted in one of the attacks and a text message saying “let’s go.”
The source said the phone was found in a dustbin near the Bataclan concert hall where 89 people died.
Late on Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said two Paris-bound Air France flights were diverted following anonymous bomb threats, and hundreds of passengers and crew were safely removed.
Authorities in the United States and Canada, where the planes landed, later said both aircraft had been searched and were safe.
On Tuesday night, bomb fears had prompted German police to call off a soccer match between Germany and the Netherlands in Hanover two hours before kick-off. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had been due to attend.
No arrests were made and no explosives were found.
Russia has also intensified its attacks on Islamic State targets in Syria after confirming that a bomb had downed a passenger airliner over Sinai last month, killing 224. The militants had previously claimed responsibility.
Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande is due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26 to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.
Hollande is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Nov. 24 also to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.
Obama said in Manila on Wednesday he wanted Moscow to shift its focus from propping up Syria’s government to fighting Islamic State and would discuss that with Putin.
Russia is allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The West says he must go if there is to be a political solution to Syria’s prolonged civil war.