Monday 5 December 2016

Brussels on lockdown as police fear mass attack

City at standstill, with underground shut and soccer matches postponed

Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

LOCKDOWN: Heavily armed Belgian soldiers and police officers are very visual on the streets of Brussels yesterday
LOCKDOWN: Heavily armed Belgian soldiers and police officers are very visual on the streets of Brussels yesterday
An officer examines the documents of a woman in a shopping street in central Brussels while troops with automatic weapons scan the crowd

Belgium put its capital Brussels on maximum security alert yesterday, shutting the metro and warning people to avoid crowds because of a "serious and imminent" threat of co-ordinated, multiple attacks by militants.

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A week after the Paris bombings and shootings by Islamic State terrorists - of whom one suspect from Brussels is still at large and said by police to be highly dangerous - Brussels was placed on the top level 'four' in the government's threat scale after a meeting of top ministers, police and security services.

Armed soldiers were on guard in parts of the capital, including at the institutions of the European Union, which has its headquarters in the city. Brussels is also home to the headquarters of Nato.

"The result of relatively precise information pointed to the risk of an attack along the lines of what took place in Paris," Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference. The Paris carnage left 130 people dead.

"We are talking about the threat that several individuals with arms and explosives would launch an attack, perhaps in several locations at the same time," Michel said.

The metro system was closed, in line with recommendations of the government's crisis centre. Major shopping centres and stores did open, with soldiers deployed outside. However, many of them began closing their doors from around midday.

The crisis centre advised the public to avoid places such as shopping centres, concerts, sports events and public transport hubs. The city's museums were shut and concert venues cancelled planned events.

Local authorities were told to cancel large events and postpone soccer matches, as well as stepping up the military and police presence.

Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said that 1,000 troops were now available for patrols, double the level of a week earlier.

Meanwhile, one of the friends of Salah Abdeslam, suspected of being one of the Paris attackers, reportedly said that he might be equipped with a suicide belt. Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged this week by the Belgian authorities for allegedly helping Abdeslam return to the country by car after the Paris attacks, made the suggestion through his lawyer, Carine Couquelet. "According to my client, Salah was extremely agitated and may be ready to blow himself up," he said.

Fears of the risk that he poses prompted last week's cancellation of an international friendly soccer match in Brussels against Spain. The crisis centre said weekend games in Belgium's two professional divisions should now be postponed, but most outside Brussels appeared set to go ahead. Belgium, and its capital in particular, have been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks. Three people detained in Brussels are facing terrorism charges. Federal prosecutors said yesterday that weapons had been found at the home of a person charged on Friday.

EU interior and justice ministers in Brussels on Friday pledged solidarity with France and agreed a series of new measures on surveillance, border checks and gun control. French authorities say the attacks were planned in Brussels by a local man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, (28) who fought for Islamic State in Syria and was killed in a police siege of an apartment in the Paris suburb of St Denis on Wednesday.

Salah Abdeslam, who was from the same Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek as Abaaoud and is said by officials to have known Abaaoud in prison. As well as Abdeslam's brother, a second man from Molenbeek, Bilal Hadfi, was also among the Paris suicide bombers.

Members of the Irish community in Brussels were caught up in the lockdown.

Katie Irvin, (19) from Portlaoise said: "At the start, we were freaking out but now we're trying to get on with our daily lives - it's a lot more tense than any other time."

From her office in the city centre, Tracey Flynn, (35) who is from Limerick, could count six soldiers and two police strolling the main Boulevard.

She said: "It's strange to walk down the street and see armed soldiers but it's hard to feel unsafe when there's eight soldiers outside with automatic weapons."

Despite the attack, Tracey, who is the supervisor of O'Reilly's Bar, opened her shop."It's business as usual. We're wondering when it's going back to normal", she said.

Sunday Independent

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