BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium on Thursday ordered Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam to stand trial over a shootout in Brussels last year with Belgian and French police officers who had been tracking Europe’s most wanted man for four months.
Abdeslam, the sole surviving alleged assailant in the November 2015 Paris massacre, was arrested three days after the shootout on March 15 last year in which several officers were wounded.
Judges on Thursday ordered Abdeslam, 27, and his alleged accomplice Sofiane Ayari, 24, to stand trial in Brussels criminal court, the federal prosecutor’s office said.
The two will be tried for “attempted murder on several police officers in a terrorist context” and “carrying banned weapons in a terrorist context,” the office said in a statement.
A trial date will be set in the next few weeks, it added.
A French woman police officer and Belgian colleagues were wounded at the Forest neighbourhood apartment in which an Algerian Islamist suspect was killed. Abdeslam and Ayari fled.
After finding Abdeslam’s fingerprints in the apartment, they arrested him and Ayari during a raid on March 18, 2016 in the gritty Brussels immigrant neighbourhood of Molenbeek, shooting Abdeslam in the leg.
Investigators suspect that Abdeslam’s arrest precipitated the attacks in Brussels four days later by suicide bombers linked to him as they feared they, too, would be captured before they could carry out their plot.
French and Belgian police believe the same cell plotted the Paris bombing and gun attacks, which left 130 people dead, and the Brussels suicide bombings, which cost the lives of 32 people at Zaventem airport and Malbeek metro station.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for both sets of attacks.
Abdeslam was transferred to France from Belgium in April last year and is likely to face trial there over his alleged role in the Paris attacks.
Abdeslam was neither present nor represented by a lawyer during Thursday’s court proceedings, while Ayari, who is being held in Belgium, was represented by his lawyer Laura Severin, she told AFP.
Severin said Ayari, who is of Tunisian origin and is implicated in the Paris attacks, admits being present in Forest on the day of the shootout and “at this point does not contest the charges.”
French sources say Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national, has remain tightlipped during police interrogation in France.
– ‘True fundamentalist’ –
Abdeslam’s exact role in the worst terror attack in French history remains unclear. Prosecutors believe he was in charge of logistics for the attacks, which were planned in Brussels.
He drove the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up outside the Stade de France to the stadium and then roamed the city before fleeing to Belgium early the next day.
He told investigators in Belgium before his transfer that he had also wanted to blow himself up at the Stade de France but had changed his mind.
His former Belgian lawyer Sven Mary told a Dutch newspaper that Abdeslam had become even more radicalised since his arrest, saying he had grown a beard and become a “true fundamentalist”.
Abdeslam’s brother Brahim blew himself up in a Paris cafe during the November attacks.
Salah Abdeslam is a childhood friend of Mohamed Abrini, who did not set off his suitcase bomb at Zaventem airport with the other two suicide bombers and was captured days later.
Abrini and Abdeslam were filmed at a service station en route to Paris just before the 2015 attacks there. Abrini has since been charged over the Paris massacre.
Belgian media said Abdeslam’s and Ayari’s trial could open as early as September.