The question on everyone’s lips was “have they got him?” as rumours spread in a run-down Brussels district Friday that Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam had finally been arrested in their midst.
As the rumour morphed into blaring news headlines on television and the radio, people gathered on the intersection between Rue des Quatre-Vents and Rue des Osiers in Molenbeek to see what was happening.
“Maybe after all that, it is for the best,” said one man in his forties from North Africa who asked not to be named, like many in a quarter suspicious of the media and authorities.
There was not much they could see, with heavily armed police, many wearing full-face balaclavas, barring entry to Rue Quatre-Vents where Abdeslam was shot and wounded.
When news of his arrest was confirmed, people looked at each other cautiously, doubtful and disbelieving at first.
Then panic hit when two explosions rocked the area — but it was only the police clearing suspect objects, not another raid or shootout.
Salah Abdeslam became Europe’s most wanted man in November after driving several of the Islamic State commandos to their targets in Paris — restaurants, bars, the national sports stadium and most deadly of all, the Bataclan concert hall where 90 of the 130 victims died.
He spent four months on the run, with some believing he had fled far from his Molenbeek home.
Before the Paris attacks the slightly built Salah lived a seemingly ordinary life, running a bar in the Brussels district with his brother Brahim.
“We are surprised; we thought he had left Belgium, was living somewhere far away,” Ahmed el Khannouss, a local councillor, told a French television station.
Brahim blew himself up in the Paris attacks and was buried discreetly on Thursday in a cemetery in the northwest of Brussels.
Another of the Paris attackers, Bilal Hadfi, was buried quietly in the same cemetery last week.
– ‘We heard gunshots’ –
For another resident, Ahmed, 28, “it is not surprising that he should hide out here.”
“He grew up here and even if the area was clearly under constant surveillance, it was surely the best place to hole out. He knew the area and he must have had friends too.”
“The IRA guys, they did the same thing, hiding among the Irish,” said Karim, 48, from the local Oxfam shop close to where Salah was arrested and only 900 metres (half a mile) from the Abdeslam family home in Molenbeek.
“When we knew that something was going on we went to look out the window. The police were already on the ground, the road blocked off,” Karim said.
“We heard gunshots but they were muffled, as though indoors, and then all these cars arrived,” he said.
A helicopter flew over the scene. An ambulance leaving a nearby street under police escort was jeered by youngsters in a crowd that thinned out as darkness fell.
Still there were locals anxious to get back to their homes, urging the police to let them know when they could get through.
“Maybe this will calm things down a bit, things were not so good recently,” said Karim. “People who do such things in the name of religion … well that just makes everyone suffer.”
Molenbeek, with its large North African immigrant community, had a reputation for Islamic radicalism but the fact that several of the Paris attackers called it home has put in the global media spotlight.
For Ahmed el Khannouss, that attention is unwelcome.
The arrest “is a relief after four months of tension and anxiety,” he told France’s i-Tele television station.
“The investigation is going to have to show who, how and why he could keep ahead of the police for four months. He must have had help,” he said.