Lockdown in Brussels as police hunt for terror cell

Belgians face disruptions as search continues for two suspects at large in the capital

A Belgian soldier stands guard outside a cafe near Brussels’ Grand Place. Photograph: Yves Herman

A Belgian soldier stands guard outside a cafe near Brussels’ Grand Place. Photograph: Yves Herman

 

Millions of Belgians face huge disruption this week as the country’s security services intensify their search for a network of Islamic militants believed to be planning a series of attacks on targets in the nation’s capital, Brussels.

Soldiers patrolled streets in the centre of Brussels yesterday with armoured vehicles deployed outside main stations and in public spaces, as the authorities indicated that there were at least two individuals at large in the Brussels area who “could commit very dangerous acts”.

Transport remained severely restricted with the city’s metro system suspended. It was unclear if schools and government offices would open as normal this morning.

On Saturday the Belgian government raised the threat level in and around the capital to four, the highest level, indicating a “serious and immediate threat”, and deployed armed forces to supplement armed local police.

Shops and restaurants remained shut yesterday in Brussels with few locals in the streets. Museums and cinemas were also closed.

“We’ve never had this kind of terrorist threat here before. It’s very unexpected, almost surreal,” said Alinka Le Comte, 26, a shop assistant in the centre of the city.

Tourists

“It is reassuring to see the police. We are concerned, but not frightened,” said Emilio Bravo, who had travelled to Brussels from Alicante, Spain.

The Sunday morning market at the city’s Eurostar terminal Gare du Midi – one of the biggest outdoor markets in Europe – was called off. Busy trains from Paris were subject to extra security measures.

Belgian officials have said that they are hunting at least two men. One is 26-year-old Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have played a role in the Paris attacks.

The Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, said “several suspects” tied to the Paris attacks could be at large in the country, amid speculation that a series of cells may be planning further strikes in the heart of the European Union.

A meeting of security agencies and senior ministers was held yesterday afternoon to decide whether the metro will be allowed to function this morning.

Backlash

“We are clearly dealing with intelligent individuals who can change their targets and tactics depending on what we do . . . So all this could take a certain time, that’s obvious,” Koen Geens, the justice minister, told a local TV network.

Many in Belgian’s Muslim community, which numbers about 600,000, fear a backlash as tensions continue.

“We are very happy to see the searches and hear about the arrests,” said Dekhili Marouan, a 35-year-old catering worker who arrived in Belgium from Tunisia five years ago. “It’s frightening for everybody. I’m worried too about people here blaming all of us Muslims for this. These people who do this kind of violence, they are not Muslims.”

Belgian officials have rejected widespread criticism of the country’s intelligence services and counter-terror efforts. But the news that a Belgian man suspected of undertaking reconnaissance for the Paris attacks’ targets has been held by Turkish police has underlined the country’s role as a base for those behind the plot.

Belgium reportedly supplies more foreign fighters to Syria than any other EU country in per capita terms.

Geens, the justice minister, said that the Paris attacks had shown that the profile of potential targets had changed.

“It’s no longer synagogues or the Jewish museums or police stations, it’s mass gatherings and public places.” – (Guardian service)