France Bombs IS HQ, Launches Manhunt

France Bombs IS HQ,  Launches Manhunt
France Bombs IS HQ,  Launches Manhunt

France launched “massive” airstrikes on the so-called Islamic State militant group’s de-facto capital in Syria Sunday night, destroying a training camp and a munitions dump in the city of Raqqa, while initiating a huge manhunt for surviving members and accomplices of the group that killed 129 people in Paris on Friday night.

Iraqi intelligence officials say the attacks on Paris were planned in Raqqa.

Twelve aircraft, including 10 fighter jets, dropped a total of 20 bombs in the biggest airstrikes since France extended its bombing campaign against the extremist group to Syria in September, a Defense Ministry statement said. The jets launched from sites in Jordan and the Persian Gulf, in coordination with US forces.

On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Turkey on Sunday, France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country was justified in taking action in Syria.

Meanwhile, police announced seven arrests and hunted for more members of the sleeper cell that carried out the Paris attacks that killed 129 people and wounded 350 people, 99 of them seriously. French officials revealed to AP that several key suspects had been stopped and released by police after the attack.

Tantalizing clues about the extent of the plot have emerged from Baghdad, where senior Iraqi officials told the AP that France and other countries had been warned on Thursday of an imminent attack.

  Iraqi Warning

An Iraqi intelligence dispatch warned that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had ordered his followers to immediately launch gun and bomb attacks, and take hostages inside the countries of the coalition fighting them in Iraq and Syria.

The Iraqi dispatch, which was obtained by the AP, provided no details on when or where the attack would take place, and a senior French security official said French intelligence gets these kinds of warnings “all the time” and “every day”.

However, Iraqi intelligence officials said they also warned France about specific details: That the attackers were trained for this operation and sent back to France from Raqqa, the IS’s de-facto capital.

The officials also said a sleeper cell in France then met with the attackers after their training and helped them to execute the plan. There were 24 people involved in the operation, they said: 19 attackers and five others in charge of logistics and planning.

None of these details has been corroborated by officials of France or other western intelligence agencies.

All these French and Iraqi security and intelligence officials spoke with AP on condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.

As many as three of the seven suicide bombers were French citizens, as was at least one of the men arrested in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which authorities consider to be a focal point for extremists and fighters going to Syria from Belgium.

  Manhunt for the Suspect

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon, speaking to AP by phone, said suspects arrested in Molenbeek had been stopped previously in Cambrai, France, “in a regular roadside check” but the police had no suspicion about them at the time and they were let go quickly.

These details stoked fears of homegrown terrorism in France, which has exported more terrorists than any other in Europe, and seen many return from the fight. All three gunmen in the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher supermarket in Paris were French.

Police have named Brussels-born Salah Abdeslam, 26, as a key suspect. He is said to have rented a VW Polo car that was found near the Bataclan concert hall, where 89 people died, and believed to have been used by attackers.

On Saturday he was in a vehicle with two other men near the Belgian border when it was stopped by police, officials said, but was released after checks.

Police have described Salah Abdeslam as dangerous and warned people not to approach him.

French news channel BFMTV quoted an investigation source as saying that he and one of the other attackers were known to the Belgian authorities. He is one of three Belgium-based brothers linked to Friday’s attacks, officials say.