France Finds Explosive Belt, Detects Paris Suspect’s Phone

PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) -
A Belgian Army soldier patrols in the Sablon District of Brussels on Monday. The Belgian capital has entered its third day of lockdown, with schools and underground transport shut and more than 1,000 security personnel deployed across the country. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
A Belgian Army soldier patrols in the Sablon District of Brussels on Monday. The Belgian capital has entered its third day of lockdown, with schools and underground transport shut and more than 1,000 security personnel deployed across the country. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

A suspected explosive belt was found dumped near Paris on Monday and the mobile phone of a fugitive believed to have taken part in the attacks on Nov. 13 was also detected, in two separate locations, a source close to the investigation said.

France and Belgium have launched a manhunt following the attacks that killed 130 people, with a focus on Brussels barkeeper Salah Abdeslam, 26, who returned to the city from Paris hours after the attacks and is still at large.

Abdeslam’s mobile phone was detected after the attacks in the 18th district in the north of Paris, near an abandoned car that he had rented, and then later in Chatillon in the south, the source said on Monday.

Detectives were examining what appeared to be an explosive belt found in a garbage can in the town of Montrouge, south of the capital and not far from Chatillon.

The source said it was too soon to say whether the belt had been in contact with Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself during the gun and suicide bomb attacks.

One theory was that Abdeslam had intended to blow himself up in the 18th district but had abandoned the plan, although it was not clear why.

Fearing an imminent threat of a Paris-style attack, Belgium extended a maximum security alert in Brussels for a week but said the metro system and schools could re-open on Wednesday.

“We are still confronted with the threat we were facing yesterday,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said. Potential targets remained shopping areas and public transport.

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks since French law enforcement bodies said two of the suicide bombers had lived there. Three people have been charged in Belgium with terrorist offences, including two who traveled back with Abdeslam from Brussels.

As authorities tried to establish Abdeslam’s movements and whereabouts, a source said he traveled through Italy in August with a companion, but his presence caused no alarm because he was not a wanted man at the time.

His companion was Ahmet Dahmani, a Belgian man of Moroccan origin who was arrested in Turkey last week on suspicion of involvement in the Paris attacks, the investigative source said.

In Belgium, prosecutors said they had charged a fourth person with terrorist offenses linked to the Paris attacks.

They released all 15 others detained in police raids on Sunday. Two of five people detained on Monday were also released, while the other three had their custody prolonged.

Soldiers patrolled the streets of Brussels, which has been in lockdown since Saturday.

The metro, museums, and many shops were shut on Monday in the usually bustling EU capital where many staff have opted to work from home. There was also no school or university for almost 300,000 students.

Meanwhile on Monday, French President Francois Hollande met British Prime Minister David Cameron in Paris as part of efforts to rally support for the fight against Islamic State, which claimed the Nov. 13 attacks. Hollande is also due to visit Washington and Moscow this week.

Cameron offered air-to-air refueling services and said he was convinced Britain should carry out air strikes alongside France, and would be recommending that Britain’s parliament approve such measures.