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France Names Paris Attack Mastermind, Makes 23 Additional Arrests


Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, Nov. 16. 2015.

French authorities have detained 23 people in police raids across the country in the aftermath of Friday's attacks in Paris, as authorites say they have identified the suspected mastermind behind the deadly assault.

A Belgian national of Moroccan descent, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was named as the possible lead plotter of the attacks that killed 129 people. Belgium authorities had sought Abaaoud earlier this year for a foiled terror attack on police.

In France, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Monday nearly 170 police raids had been conducted overnight. In addition to those detained, more than 100 people were placed under house arrest.

The raids, carried out in Toulouse, Grenoble, Jeumont, Lyon and the Parisian suburb of Bobigny, resulted in the seizure of a number of weapons, including a rocket launcher, a Kalashnikov rifle and bulletproof vests.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected mastermind behind the terror attacks in Paris
Abdelhamid Abaaoud, suspected mastermind behind the terror attacks in Paris

Belgium raids

Police raids also took place in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium where authroties are searching for Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have helped carry out the Paris attacks, along with his two brothers.

French police released a photo of a Abdeslam on Sunday. Media sources are reporting that French officials stopped Abdeslam hours after the attacks Friday night. They pulled him over on a roadway near the Belgian border in a car with two other people, questioned the three and released them.

His brother - Salah Ibrahim - blew himself up at the Bataclan music hall, during an attack there that killed more than 80 people. Belgium authorities are detaining a third brother.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said France has "avoided several attacks," but there could be more "in the coming days, in the coming weeks." The prime minister said he is not trying to scare people but "we're living with and we're going to live for a long time, with this terrorist threat and we need to prepare ourselves for further attacks."

Meanwhile, France held a midday moment of silence Monday to pay homage to the victims of Friday's terrorism attacks on six sites across Paris. The death toll had stood at 132, but was lowered after an apparent counting error.

(From L) French Minister for Higher Education and Research Thierry Mandon, French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French President Francois Hollande and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls observe a minute of silence at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015.
(From L) French Minister for Higher Education and Research Thierry Mandon, French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French President Francois Hollande and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls observe a minute of silence at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015.

'Act of War'

On Sunday, French fighter jets launched massive airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa in Syria, destroying a command post and a training camp.

The planes took off from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates and were operating in conjunction with U.S. forces

A French military statement said 10 fighter jets were used to drop 20 bombs on the Islamic State targets. It was France’s biggest strike to date targeting IS in Syria.

President Hollande has called Friday’s gun and suicide attacks an "act of war."

Bullet impacts are seen in the window of a laundromat near the Le Carillon restaurant, one of the attack sites in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015.
Bullet impacts are seen in the window of a laundromat near the Le Carillon restaurant, one of the attack sites in Paris, Nov. 16, 2015.

Investigation

While authorities believe that there were only eight actual attackers, they think that about 20 people were involved. French prosecutors said Monday one suicide bomber has been identified as Samy Amkimour, a 28-year-old Frenchman charged in a terrorism investigation in 2012. He had been placed under judicial supervision, but had disappeared and an international arrest warrant had been issued for him.

Prosecutors said three people in Amkimour's family were detained early Monday.

Prosecutors said another suicide bomber was found with a Syrian passport with the name Ahmad Al Mohammad, a 25-year-old born in Idlib. The prosecutor's office said the attacker's fingerprint matched someone who passed through Greece in October.

Another attacker was identified as Bilal Hafdi of Belgium, who was one of the suicide bombers at the stadium.

French police Sunday questioned close relatives of Omar Ismail Mostefai, the first terrorist identified in the attack.

Mostefai's father, brother and sister-in-law were among six people authorities detained. He was one of seven attackers, all of them wearing suicide vests packed with explosives, who died during the simultaneous attacks, with six of them blowing themselves up and the seventh killed in a shootout with police.

French prosecutor Francois Molins said Mostefai was known to police as a petty criminal, but had "never been implicated in an investigation or a terrorist association." The 29-year-old Mostefai lived in Chartres, near Paris.

People gather outside the Bataclan music hall in Paris, France, Sunday Nov. 15, 2015. (Photo: L. Bryant / VOA)
People gather outside the Bataclan music hall in Paris, France, Sunday Nov. 15, 2015. (Photo: L. Bryant / VOA)

IS claims responsibility

In its claim of responsibility, Islamic State lashed out at the countries trying to suppress its attempt to establish a "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, and said France remains "at the top" of its list of preferred targets.

An Islamic State message posted online Saturday said the Paris attacks were a response to the airstrikes the United States and its allies have been launching against its fighters in Iraq and Syria for more than a year.

The Islamic State singled out France in its online statement. "The stench of death will not leave their noses," it said of French leaders.

Panic in Paris

Hundreds of Parisians who had gathered to observe vigils at the Place de la République and Carillion Café, one of the places that was attacked, panicked Sunday when sudden noises sent them running.

The Associated Press reports that the crowd was spooked by firecrackers.

The Place de la République was the scene of massive peace demonstrations after January’s Paris attacks.

VOA correspondent Daniel Schearf contributed to this report from Paris

WATCH: Daniel Schearf reports from the Place de la Republique

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