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Paris Attacks Galvanize Police Forces Next Door In Belgium


Next-door to France in Belgium, Friday's attacks have focused the police and security forces. There's growing evidence of Belgian ties among the attackers and their accomplices. NPR's Peter Kenyon has the latest on police raids there.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: As shock at the Paris attacks spread over the weekend, Belgian authorities began to acknowledge that when it comes to the poor, largely minority, neighborhood of Molenbeek, they really don't have control of the situation.

JAN JAMBON: (Speaking French).

KENYON: Interior Minister Jan Jambon told Belgian television that, especially in Molenbeek, the usual security measures had failed to work. He vowed to personally take charge of the Molenbeek case and get results.

Monday morning saw special operations police with bomb sniffing dogs and body armor cordoning off a street in Molenbeek, leaving local residents stuck out in the cold rain as buildings were searched. The most wanted suspect to be publicly named is Salah Abdelsalam, a 26-year-old Belgian from this neighborhood. His brother Brahim was one of the Paris attackers killed Friday night. Another brother, Mohammed, was arrested but released today. He told reporters he has no idea where his brother Salah is, and the whole family is stunned by the events of the weekend.

As the raid went on through the afternoon, shoppers wandered nearby cobblestone streets. At a clothing store, I met lifelong Molenbeek resident Sunny Sheikh, who knew Salah Abdelsalam very casually as another boy growing up in a small neighborhood. Sheikh says he always saw Abdelsalam as just another young man trying to carve out a life here.

SUNNY SHEIKH: He seems to be a normal guy like me, you know? And I'm really shocked because this guy - I have seen him since I'm a child. I have never talked to him, but I have see him a lot of times.

KENYON: Sheikh says Abdelsalam certainly never fit the stereotype of a radical Islamist.

SHEIKH: This guy was dressing normal clothes like somebody - he's wearing designer clothes. This is what I'm shocked with, you know? And he's nice haircut, really stylish guy, and you know, it's - normal guy. I almost never saw him in the mosque. It's really shocking.

KENYON: Around the corner, shop manager Aziz Naqi says this conservative, largely Muslim neighborhood is stunned by the Paris attacks. And while he doesn't like the raids, he wants the Paris killers to face justice.

AZIZ NAQI: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: "This is very serious," he says, "very serious."

NAQI: (Through interpreter) It's true. There are a lot of raids in this district. We have people who do stupid things. But if you break the law, you should be punished. That's just logical.

KENYON: This raid on Molenbeek yielded no arrests. Meanwhile, another Belgian surfaced in connection with the Paris killings - Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian Moroccan from the same neighborhood. He may have ordered the attacks, U.S. officials say. The scrutiny of Belgium, from within and without, seems likely to continue. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.