Brussels shooting: Suspects on run after ISIS flag, rifle found in apartment

Updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri March 18, 2016
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Story highlights

Raid turned up an ISIS flag, a Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition

But two people escaped after an intense, prolonged firefight

(CNN) —  

Belgian authorities are searching for two suspects who escaped when police raided a Brussels apartment linked to last year’s terror attacks in Paris.

The apartment raid turned up an ISIS flag, a Kalashnikov rifle and ammunition.

READ: Survivors recall carnage in Paris

But two people escaped after an intense, prolonged firefight, according to a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office.

During the raid Tuesday, authorities killed suspect Belkhaid Mohammed, 35. The Algerian had not been on authorities’ radar before, spokesman Eric Van der Sypt said in a statement.

READ: Eagles of Death Metal return to Paris: ‘It was perfect’

A sniper for the Belgian special forces killed Mohammed when he tried to open fire on police from a window.

His body was found next to a rifle and a book on Salafism, a puritanical branch of Islam that dictates only the followers of the Prophet Mohammed practice the correct Islam.

Authorities also discovered 11 loaded Kalashnikov magazines “and innumerable shell casings,” but no explosives, according to Van der Sypt.

An intense manhunt followed Tuesday’s operation in the southern Brussels neighborhood of Forest. Authorities connected it to the investigation of the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people in November.

What happened

The raid Tuesday started when four Belgian and two French police officers arrived at what they thought was an empty residence in Forest, according to a senior Belgian counterterrorism official.

“From the moment that the door of the flat was opened, at least two persons … opened fire toward them,” Van der Sypt said.

Three officers – including a Frenchwoman – were hurt in the initial exchange of gunfire before managing “to retreat safely,” he said. A fourth officer from Belgium suffered a slight injury to the head in a later exchange.

Reinforcements arrived, with bullets flying back and forth for several hours.

There’s no change in Belgium’s threat level, now at its second highest. But Prime Minister Charles Michel acknowledged the raid underscored the need to be on guard.

“The terrorist threat level is maintained at level three as yesterday’s events confirm the threat is still real,” he said.

Belgium a focus after Paris attacks

It’s unknown what connection Tuesday’s raid has to the November 13 carnage in Paris. Belgium has been a focal point for investigators.

European investigators focused intently on Belgium, especially Brussels, on the heels of the attack.

These two had an even more integral role than Abdelhamid Abaaoud – the man long identified as the ringleader of the attacks – according to the official.

Abaaoud was killed during a dramatic raid that shook a Paris neighborhood and collapsed an entire floor of an apartment building.

Yet others with Belgian connections and ties to the November 13 attacks remain at large.

They include Abdeslam, a Belgian-born French national who lived and spent time with Abaaoud in a Belgian prison. The trail for Abdeslam, one of the few alleged Paris attackers to escape alive, went cold in December, according to a senior European counterterrorism official.

French sources close to the investigation said Abdeslam was not the target of Tuesday’s raid. (French police were part of that operation, according to those sources.)

There are many reason authorities investigating the Paris attacks are in Belgium. Many of those tied to the Paris attacks live in the country, and they’re believed to have met there before lashing out.

There is concern more individuals from the same place may be ready to launch other attacks.

CNN’s Steve Almasy, Paul Cruickshank, Stephanie Halasz and Nima Elbagir contributed to this report.