BEIRUT/PARIS/BRUSSELS - US-led coalition warplanes have pounded the Islamic State group in Syria after the Paris attacks, with French raids hitting IS stronghold Raqa and another strike destroying dozens of oil tankers.
In its first major military response to Friday’s attacks in Paris, France said 12 of its warplanes had hit IS positions in Raqa, the militants’ de facto Syrian capital.
Activists and a monitoring group said the wave of strikes had shaken the city and sparked panic, but the number of casualties was not immediately clear. “There were at least 36 explosions overnight in Raqa city, some caused by air strikes and some by weapons and explosives detonating after being hit,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The blasts shook the entire city,” he told AFP.
President Francois Hollande unveiled France’s riposte to Islamic State on Monday after its atrocities in Paris, vowing tough new anti-terror measures and intensified bombing of Syria in a historic speech to parliament.
Describing the coordinated attacks that killed 129 people as “acts of war,” Hollande urged a global fightback to crush IS and said he would hold talks with his US and Russian counterparts on a new offensive.
Friday’s “acts of war... were decided and planned in Syria, prepared and organised in Belgium (and) perpetrated on our soil with French complicity,” Hollande told an extraordinary meeting of both houses of parliament in Versailles. “The need to destroy Daesh (IS) ... concerns the entire international community,” he told lawmakers, who burst into an emotional rendition of the La Marseillaise national anthem after his speech - only the second time in more than 150 years a French president has addressed a joint session of parliament.
France’s defence ministry said warplanes, including Rafale and Mirage fighters, had dropped 20 bombs on targets including a command post, a recruitment centre and arms depots south of Raqa.
On Monday, the Pentagon said coalition strikes on Sunday destroyed 116 fuel trucks used by the militant group near Albu Kamal, an IS-held town in Deir Ezzor province on the border with Iraq.
A coalition spokesman said the strike hit parked trucks, “the first time that we’ve hit so many at once”.
Belgium on Monday charged two people with involvement in terrorism after they were arrested over the Paris attacks, as a major police operation in Brussels failed to nab a key suspect. The charges came as French President Francois Hollande said that Friday’s attacks in which 129 people were killed were planned in Syria but launched from Belgium, with French help.
In Belgium, the pair were charged “with a terrorist act and participation in the activities of a terrorist group”, while five others held at the weekend were freed without charge, the federal prosecutor’s office said. One of those released was Mohamed Abdeslam - whose brother Brahim was one of the suicide attackers in Paris, and whose other brother Salah is being hunted by police.
The prosecutors confirmed that a major police raid in Brussels on Monday aimed at arresting Salah Abdeslam had ended without anyone being detained.
Dozens of officers in balaclavas and carrying submachineguns surrounded a house in the Molenbeek district in western Brussels, a the run-down immigrant area which is increasingly under scrutiny as a hotbed of European militancy. “The operation is over and the result is negative. No one was arrested,” a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, Eric Van Der Sypt, told AFP.
Van Der Sypt had earlier confirmed that the raid targeted Salah - a 26-year-old former Brussels tram worker who is the subject of an international arrest warrant - without saying whether he was in the house.
His brother Mohamed was released because there was “nothing against him,” Mohamed Abdeslam’s lawyer Nathalie Gallant told AFP. “He has had no contact with his brothers in recent days,” she added.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Monday that the authorities would crack down on extremism in Molenbeek, where Brahim had been living before he blew himself up outside a cafe in Paris on Friday.
“I have asked the security services to give us plans very quickly, for Molenbeek but also other areas, so that we can have a much more organised approach to the fight against radicalism,” he told RTL radio.
Molenbeek was home to one of the 2004 Madrid train bombers and the main suspect in the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels, while the perpetrator of a foiled attack in August on an Amsterdam-Paris train stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding in Brussels.
A Belgian newspaper said meanwhile that Brahim had links to a Belgian Islamic State (IS) militant believed to be the mastermind of a militant cell dismantled in January. Brahim’s name appears in several police files alongside leading militant Abdelhamid Abaaoud - who also lived in Molenbeek - relating to criminal cases in 2010 and 2011, Flemish-language newspaper De Standaard reported.
“Investigators see a link with Verviers,” it said, referring to an eastern Belgian town where police shot dead two militants in January and broke up a cell that was planning to kill Belgian police officers in the streets days after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.
Abaaoud - a 27-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent who allegedly led the Verviers cell and had fought with the Islamic State group in Syria - remains at large. He has claimed in the IS English-language magazine Dabiq to have rejoined the group in Syria.
French prosecutors said Monday they had identified two more Paris attackers, including a Syrian and a Frenchman who was previously charged in a “terrorist” case. A suicide bomber who blew himself up outside the Stade de France stadium is believed to be Syrian Ahmad Al Mohammad from Idlib. A statement from the prosecutor’s office said the Syrian passport found in that name near the body “remains to be verified”, but that fingerprints matched those taken in Greece in October.
Meanwhile, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris called Monday on all French imams to lead the faithful in Friday prayers for the victims of the country’s worst ever terror attacks.
“I appeal to imams to take part in a solemn prayer to show our compassion and share in the families’ sorrow,” rector Dalil Boubakeur told reporters.
He was speaking after a minute of silence was observed across France and Europe in honour of the 129 victims of the gun and suicide attacks that rocked Paris at the weekend.
Boubakeur voiced “horror” at the “unspeakable acts” which had targeted “absolutely innocent” Parisians.
“We, Muslims of France, can only insist on the need for national unity in opposing this misfortune which has afflicted us and which attacks indiscriminately,” he said.