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Disbelief as Dutroux flees court

BELGIUM's public enemy number one, Marc Dutroux, once more held centre stage yesterday. The country was aghast as he treated himself to an unexpected ``afternoon in the country''While police in Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany mounted an all-borders alert and began a major manhunt, the two Belgian houses of parliament suspended normal business. There were angry calls from the opposition Liberal Party for the Premier Jean-Luc Dehaene and his government to resign.

Customers in shops and cafes across the country spoke of nothing else. Belgian radio reverberated with expressions of anger and disbelief as the plot of this incredible tale changed from minute to minute.

Reports that he had been re-captured were denied as quickly, and even the news at 5.45 pm that he was well and truly caught, could not lift the nation's 10 million inhabitants' depressing sense of deja vu.

Belgium's and Europe's most notorious and dangerous suspect was at large. He left brandishing a police pistol, clad in his prison clothes and white trainers. His dark moustached face is better known than that of the King of the Belgians.

People speculated that blood would be spilt. Allegations by the victims' families of collusion at a high level in the whole affair were repeated this time amid speculation that the outcome could mean there never will be a trial and the full facts will never be put into the public domain.

Two months ago, a parliamentary inquiry report found that investigating police were guilty of ``incompetence, negligence and amateurism'' in their handling of investigations. The relative ease with which he was able to overpower and disarm his police escort at the courthouse in the eastern Belgian town of Neufchateau yesterday, rush from the building and hijack a car, merely appeared to underline these findings.

The inquiry report found that two victims, who subsequently died, were imprisoned, tortured and abused in the cellar of a house owned by the accused. Incredibly, police had visited this property but concluded nothing amiss, despite reporting hearing screams there.

Under the Napoleonic legal code, the wheels of justice grind even more slowly in criminal cases.

Meanwhile, Marc Dutroux exercised his legal right to inspect the mammoth investigation dossier at the courthouse in Neufchateau. During his time in jail he had become a model prisoner and his calm demeanour led to a relaxation of security to the extent that his handcuffs were removed a crucial factor in his escape bid and subsequent two carjackings.

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