Nov 18, 2015 5:09 PM
In Paris suburb, residents wait out the bloody gunbattle
The Associated Press
SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) In a beer bottle-cluttered apartment on Boucheries Street, in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, two young waiters, two journalists and a graphic designer shared cigarettes, watched television and waited for the bloody conclusion.
The group which included an Associated Press reporter had been ordered into the apartment early Wednesday following the eruption of a spectacular firefight down the block between heavily armed fugitives and French police. Residents across Saint-Denis spent the next six hours waiting for the final, fatal battle, with the rest of France sharing in the suspense.
"I think they'll get them before noon," said Baptiste Marie, a 26-year-old radio journalist as he watched coverage of the siege on a small, flat-screen television.
Marie had a rough morning, jolted out of bed like nearly everyone else within a 10-block radius by wall-shaking explosions, clattering machine gun fire and screaming sirens. His neighbors on Corbillion Street, it eventually became clear, were Europe's most wanted: heavily armed Muslims accused of helping to organize the slaughter of 128 people in pitiless attacks on Paris nightspots Friday night.
Around 4:20 a.m., police tried to force their way into the fugitives' apartment, about 300 meters (yards) from where Marie was sleeping, triggering a ferocious gunbattle. Police alone fired 5,000 rounds over the next hour or so, the sounds of war echoing around the cobblestone backstreets of the scruffy suburb.
"We all burst out of rooms at the same time," Marie said of himself and his Boucheries Street roommate Helena Hadjipournos, 24, and her boyfriend, Amine Guizani, 21. The three, along with a friend who had crashed on the couch, were confused and afraid.
All of them had Friday night's killings on their mind; a friend of theirs was due to attend the funeral of one of the victims.
Up and down the shabby-looking building on Boucheries Street, the mostly young tenants woke up with the same sense of dread.
"I thought it was a terror attack," said downstairs neighbor Charlene, a 22-year-old massage student who spoke on condition that her last name be withheld. "We finally got news around 5:30 am."
She was rattled by the thought of terrorists living only a few doors away. Had she passed them in the street or in the supermarket?
She said it was disturbing to think that she had walked by their hideout every day. "It's almost frightening," she said. "It could be anyone. Anywhere."
By the time the AP reporter arrived at 6:15 a.m., the situation had quieted. Police had taken up positions around Corbillion Street, shining bright lights and green lasers at anyone who came too close.
But as journalists massed and satellite trucks sped over the paving stones, police widened the perimeter, ordering everyone back into their homes sometimes at gunpoint. As dawn broke over Saint Denis, the quiet around the neighborhood's imposing basilica was broken by gruff voices shouting, "Get inside!" or "Go back! Go back! GO BACK!"
The relative peace was broken just once by about seven explosions in rapid succession around 7:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m. boredom was sinking in. Guizani smoked. Marie busied himself shooing Joker, his cat, off the roof. Bets were offered on when the siege would end.
"Definitely by the end of the day," Hadjipournos said.
France has seen this before. Fanatics go on a rampage, killing Jews, soldiers, police officer or journalists. They go into hiding, prompting a huge manhunt. After a few days of suspense comes the confrontation, almost invariably involving the killer or killers' death in a blaze of gunfire.
It happened with Mohamed Merah, who killed Jewish schoolchildren before being gunned down in 2012, with the Kouachi brothers, who slaughtered Charlie Hebdo journalists before being shot to death in January, and with their accomplice Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages at a kosher supermarket before being brought down in turn.
Once last week's Paris attacks moved into the standoff stage, few expected any survivors.
"No way they're going to be taken alive," Guizani said.
Some were, in the end. Two people died when heavily armed SWAT teams rushed in, but eight others were arrested, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said. Many other suspects remain unaccounted for.
Closer to the site of the raid, Madeleine and Andre Franchon, 80 and 85 respectively, complained that outsiders had ruined Saint-Denis, an area they had lived in for six decades. It's a common complaint on the French right, and an increasingly common one across the political spectrum as the country grapples with mass migration from the Mideast.
Saint-Denis has a large immigrant population, reflected in its Sunday market, where shoppers can buy African mangoes, sweet toffee-coated apples, sheep intestines and 4-for-10-euros chickens. But Saint-Denis is also a magnet for crime and disaffection.
Andre Franchon complained that the neighborhood has been overrun by "cigarette dealers, then dope, then drugs and then guns." He said he supports far-right leader Marine Le Pen's push to close France's borders to mass migration "even if I would never vote for her."
"Old people want peace," he said. "This is an invasion. Yes, an invasion."
On the top floor of a modest apartment on nearby Republic Street, Matt and Farah Appane, 38 and 27, said the bloodshed is driving them out of the country.
"We've decided to move back to Mauritius," Matt said as journalists from around the world shoved past him to get into his family's bedroom, which had a commanding view of the shootout. "We started thinking about it since Friday. Now it's definite. This is too much. It's like war has started."