Hours after the synchronized attacks that terrorized Paris, French police questioned and released the suspect who is now the focus of an international manhunt, officials told The Associated Press on Sunday.
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Saleh Abdeslam, 26, was one of three men in a getaway car, headed for France's border with Belgium, when police pulled them over after daybreak Saturday. The French president had already announced new border controls to prevent the perpetrators from escaping. Hours had passed since investigators identified Abdeslam as the renter of a Volkswagen Polo that carried hostage-takers to the Paris theater where almost three-quarters of the 129 victims were killed.
It's not clear why the local French police, known as gendarmes, didn't take Abdeslam into custody. They checked his identification, but it's not known whether they had been informed of his apparent connection to the attacks.
"It was a simple check. There was no lookout notice at the time of the traffic stop," a French police official told the AP.
Asked whether Abdeslam's name had been shared over police networks by then, the official simply said: "I have no explanation."
By Sunday night, French authorities put out a public appeal for help locating Abdeslam, showing his mug shot and warning that he is too dangerous to be confronted. One of his brothers had detonated a suicide vest down the street from the theater; another was ultimately detained in Belgium, officials said.
The two other men who drove across the border with Abdeslam were arrested. Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told the AP that suspects detained in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels had been stopped in the town of Cambrai, France, "in a regular roadside check" but that police had had no suspicion about them at the time and they were let go quickly.
Hours later, Belgian police, working on a request from the French, detained three men — including one of Abdeslam's brothers — in Molenbeek, which authorities consider to be a focal point for Islamic extremists and fighters going to Syria from Belgium.
Abdeslam, a French resident of Belgium, was not among those arrested.
Three French citizens, including one of Abdeslam's brothers, were among the seven people who died carrying out the attacks at France's national stadium, popular Paris nightspots and the sold-out rock show at the Bataclan concert hall.
On Saturday, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the Polo "was rented by a French national living in Belgium," without naming him. He said authorities believe there were three coordinated teams of attackers, wearing explosive vests and carrying an arsenal of automatic weapons. Three men blew themselves up outside Stade de France stadium during a France-Germany soccer match; three used the Polo to get to the Bataclan, where they all died in a standoff with police, they said.
Authorities have said little about the fate of the third team, which drove a rented Seat compact that carried out a rampage of drive-by shootings on bars and eateries in eastern Paris. One police official said the Seat dropped off the brother of Abdeslam who blew himself up at Au Comptoir Voltaire restaurant. The car was later found abandoned, with three Kalashnikovs inside.