Belgium law delayed police search for Paris terror suspect, officials say

Story highlights

  • Belgium justice minister said police waited hours before launching search for Salah Abdeslam
  • The law, which limited hours for police searches in Belgium, has been changed

(CNN)Police in Belgium waited hours to launch a search for Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam because of a law that prevented house searches between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., Belgium Justice Minister Koen Geens said.

By the time Belgian authorities searched a house in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek on November 16, Abdeslam was not present, Geens said.
    "It was a severe handicap for us that we could only start at 10 a.m.," Geens also told CNN affiliate VTM. It was not entirely clear if something prevented the operation from starting earlier.
    Geens' comments triggered a vigorous debate at the Belgian lower house of Parliament Thursday as representatives blasted Geens for the lack of adequate response in the manhunt for Abdeslam.
    Belgium changed the law December 11 to allow house searches 24 hours a day in terrorism investigations. Previously, the only exception had been when lives were endangered because of organized crime.
    A worldwide search is under way for Abdeslam, 26, who is thought to have been the driver of a black Renault Clio that dropped off three suicide bombers near the Stade de France the night of November 13.
    Terrorists killed 130 people in attacks outside the stadium and at a concert hall and restaurants and bars. Most of the attackers committed suicide or were killed by police.
    Authorities had already missed one chance to capture Abdeslam, a Belgium-born French national.
    He was driving toward the Belgian border when police stopped and questioned him a few hours after the attacks. He was not detained and the car was found in Molenbeek, where his family lives.
    Molenbeek has a large, predominantly Muslim population of first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa that has gained an unwelcome reputation as a hotbed of jihadism. Authorities conducted house-to-house searches there.
    In France, a state of emergency was declared a few days after the attacks to give law enforcement the authority to conduct house searches 24 hours a day and with very little judicial oversight.
      Before the state of emergency, French authorities could conduct house searches between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. In the case of terrorism or organized crime, a search could have started outside those hours, but usually needed a magistrate's written authorization. A prosecutor was in control of the process.