BRUSSELS (AP) — Salah Abdeslam, the top suspect in last year’s Paris attacks, was charged with “terrorist murder” on Saturday by Belgian authorities for the carnage that left 130 people dead. A French prosecutor said Abdeslam had planned to be a stadium suicide bomber but backed out at the last minute.
His lawyer vowed to fight any attempt to extradite him from Belgium to France to stand trial.
After being on the run for four months, Abdeslam, 26, was shot in the leg and captured Friday along with a suspected accomplice in a massive police raid in Brussels. Three others were also detained, but two were released on Saturday.
Sven Mary, Abdeslam’s lawyer, said he and Abdeslam met with a Belgian investigating magistrate Saturday but his client had to be questioned lying down due to his leg wound. Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French citizen, is accused of playing a key role in the deadly Nov. 13 attacks on a rock concert, cafes and a stadium that left Paris reeling.
“I can tell you that he is collaborating with Belgian justice and that we will refuse the extradition to France,” Mary said.
Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters that Abdeslam told Belgian investigators Saturday he had planned to be a suicide bomber at France’s main stadium on Nov. 13 but backed out at the last minute. Molins said the suspect abandoned his suicide vest that night after he drove other attackers to Paris — but he did not say why.
Belgium authorities on Saturday officially charged him and an alleged accomplice who has used two aliases “with participation in terrorist murder … and in the activities of a terrorist organization.”
Soon afterward, the French Justice Ministry announced that a new European arrest warrant — effectively an extradition request — had been issued against Abdeslam to speed his return to France. The new warrant incorporates more charges against him. The ministry said Belgium has up to two months now to hand over Abdeslam or three months if he appeals.
Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, said he hopes Abdeslam can be brought to France to face justice. He called Abdeslam’s arrest a “major blow” to the Islamic State group in Europe, but warned the threat of new attacks remains “extremely high.”
Abdeslam will now appear before a pretrial court on Wednesday, which will decide whether he stays in jail for up to another month.
“If he starts talking, then I presume it will mean he stays longer in Belgium,” federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told the AP. But whether Abdeslam fights extradition or not, the prosecutor predicted “sooner or later he will be extradited to France.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference Saturday his government has no “political objection” to handing Abdeslam over to the French but wants to fully respect Belgian judicial procedures.
“The fight is not over” against terrorism, he declared.
Two other people believed linked to the attacks are still being sought, including fellow Molenbeek resident Mohamed Abrini and a man known under the alias of Soufiane Kayal.
French President Francois Hollande has said he was sure that when French judicial authorities made an extradition request “Belgian authorities will answer it as favorably as possible, as soon as possible.”
Abdeslam is a childhood friend of the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks. Investigators believe Abdeslam drove a car carrying gunmen who took part in the shootings, rented rooms for them and shopped for detonators. Most of the Paris attackers died on the night of the attacks, including Abdeslam’s brother Brahim, who blew himself up.
The car Abdeslam drove was abandoned in northern Paris, and his mobile phone and an explosive vest he may have had were later found in the Paris suburb of Montrouge.
After the bloodbath, Salah Abdeslam evaded a dragnet to return to Brussels. He was believed to have slipped through police fingers multiple times despite an international manhunt.
It’s possible that Abdeslam had spent weeks or even months in the Molenbeek apartment, according to Van der Sypt.
Abdeslam and four other suspects were detained in Friday’s raid, including three members of a family that sheltered him. Abdeslam was not armed but did not immediately obey orders when confronted by police, Van der Sypt said.
Belgian prosecutors were not sure of the identity of the presumed accomplice arrested with Abdeslam, who they said used fake Syrian and Belgian documents in two different names.
Samia Maktouf, a French lawyer for several survivors and relatives of the Paris attack victims, urged an immediate extradition for Abdeslam.
“Apart from his (medical) condition, I don’t see what might delay his extradition,” she told the AP.
For her clients, “relief is mingled with bitterness” because some suspects are still on the run and belong to a sprawling, organized terror network that has yet to be stopped, Maktouf said.
“Our young people found death for no reason. Today, their families have empty chairs next to them, they have a phone that doesn’t ring any longer,” she said.
Sotto reported from Paris. Raf Casert in Brussels and Sylvie Corbet and Thomas Adamson in Paris assisted.