Liege attack: Gunman kills three in Belgian ‘terror’ incident

Man shoots two police officers and a passerby before taking hostages in a school

Amateur footage captures a police operation in the Belgian city of Liege after a man killed two police officers and a passer-by. Video: Reuters

 

A man killed two policewomen and a bystander in the Belgian city of Liege on Tuesday before being gunned down at a school in what officials say was a terrorist attack by a radicalised “lone wolf” who was just out of prison.

The man was named by public broadcaster RTBF as a 36-year-old petty criminal and drug dealer who was let out on day-release on Monday.

A Belgian politician said the man had been on a police watchlist after being radicalised in jail, apparently as a convert to Islam – raising questions about why he seems to have been freed unsupervised and had been expected to return to the jail.

Officials said the man attacked the policewomen, aged 45 and 53, from behind with a knife – described as a box-cutter by RTBF – at about 10.30am local time on a boulevard in the centre of Belgium’s third city, which is located near the German border.

After slashing the officers, the man seized their handguns and shot both. He then shot dead a 22-year-old trainee teacher who was sitting in a car before entering a high school about 100m away and taking two female employees hostage.

That triggered a major intervention by armed police. Pupils were moved to safety as a gunbattle broke out that sent people in the street racing for cover. Four police officers were wounded before the attacker was finally killed.

“The goal of the assassin was to target the police,” Liege police chief Christian Beaupère told a news conference.

Police officers redirect traffic in the eastern Belgian city of Liege after an armed man killed two police officers. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Police officers redirect traffic in the eastern Belgian city of Liege after an armed man killed two police officers. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The attacker’s profile underlines concerns about the risks of petty criminals, including those who are not from Muslim backgrounds, being inspired to Islamist violence while incarcerated. Convicts have been behind several recent attacks in Europe.

The national crisis centre, on high alert since attacks by Islamic State in Paris and Brussels in recent years, said it had not raised its alert level – an indication the man was acting alone and follow-up attacks were not expected.

‘Allahu Akbar’

La Libre Belgique newspaper quoted a police source as saying the gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” – “God is greatest” in Arabic. Beaupère declined to comment when asked about that.

A Koran and prayer rug were found during a search of his cell, Paris-Match magazine said. De Standaard newspaper said police also suspected him of the murder late on Monday of a criminal associate whose body was found south of Liege.

Confirming that the attacker was on the anti-terrorist watchlist, politician Georges Dallemagne, who sits on several Belgian parliamentary security committees, tweeted: “The supervision of radicalised prisoners remains tragically flawed.”

Police and ambulance are seen at the site where an armed man shot and killed police officers in the eastern Belgian city of Liege. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Police and ambulances are seen at the site where an armed man shot and killed police officers in the eastern Belgian city of Liege. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Images posted on social media showed elements of the attack, including what appeared to be the bodies of the two police officers lying a couple of metres apart outside a cafe; the gunman, dressed in black, waving a pistol in each hand, standing in the middle of the road, and finally the assailant emerging from the school onto the street, firing on police, who gun him down.

Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and King Philippe visited Liege, the biggest city in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region, following the incident. An industrial hub on the Meuse river, it was the scene of a mass shooting in 2011, when a man killed four people and wounded more than 100 others before turning his gun on himself.

Police officers speak with parents of children at a school in Liege after a man killed three people including two policemen. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Police officers speak with parents of children at a school in Liege after a man killed three people including two policewomen. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A Brussels-based Islamic State cell was involved in attacks on Paris in 2015 that killed 130 people and on Brussels in 2016 in which 32 died.

The Brussels Islamic State cell had links to militants in Verviers, another industrial town close to Liege, where in early 2015 police raided a safe house and killed two men who had returned from fighting with radical Islamists in Syria. – Reuters