Saturday 23 November 2019

Belgium terror suspects equipped with Kalashnikov rifles and explosives 'planned to seize passenger bus'

* Two jihadists killed in Belgium police anti-terror raid in Verviers
* Men had recently returned from Syria - reports
* Third man detained, prosecutors say
* No clear link to Paris attacks, but focus on Syria fighters

Bruno Warfield

Belgian terror suspects armed with Kalashnikov rifles and explosives were planning to seize a passenger bus and take hostages.

The Telegraph is reporting that the two jihadists, who were killed by Belgian special forces after a raid on their apartment, recently returned from Syria.

Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. At least two people were killed when Belgian counter-terrorist police raided an apartment used by suspected Islamist radicals on Thursday. Reuters
Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. At least two people were killed when Belgian counter-terrorist police raided an apartment used by suspected Islamist radicals on Thursday. Reuters
Belgian police inspect an apartment in central Verviers.

A series of anti-terror raids took place across northern Europe overnight, as a result of yesterday's operations.

Belgian authorities said they thwarted the major attack by just hours when they killed two suspects in a shoot-out and arrested a third in a huge anti-terror operation that stretched into the night.

The two men are believed to be of Belgian and Moroccan descent.

No formal links have been made to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks although many observers expect those links to become solidified as the day goes on.

Margaret Gilmore, Senior Associate Fellow with international defense agency RUSI spoke to RTE's News At One:

"The problem for the terrorist agencies is that the threat is multi-layered and growing and coming from different areas," she said.

A Belgian special forces police blocks a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters
A Belgian special forces police blocks a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters

"You have people acting alone but you also have cells forming around the world... people who have battlefield experience."

"Charlie Hebdo might have spurred them on but their plot appears to have been separate and pre-planned."

Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Belgian police officers guard a street in Verviers, Belgium. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Belgian special forces police block a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Special police forces guard a street in Verviers, Belgium. (AP Photo / Frank Augstein)
Eric Van Der Sypt, center, from the Brussels federal prosecutors office speaks with the media at police headquarters in Brussels. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Police investigate a shootout in a street in Verviers, Belgium. (AP Photo / Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Belgian special forces police block a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters/Francois Lenoir
Special police forces guard a street in Verviers, Belgium. (AP Photo / Frank Augstein)
Belgian police inspect an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters/Stringer
Judiciary officials confirmed only that a counter-terrorism operation took place in Verviers. Reuters/Stringer
Belgian police officers guard a street in Verviers, Belgium, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Police and emergency response vehicles block a street after security forces took part in anti-terrorist raids in Verviers, eastern Belgium. (AP Photo/RTL - TVI)
Twwo people were killed when Belgian counter-terrorist police raided an apartment used by suspected Islamist radicals on Thursday, local media said, describing a coordinated, national operation related to last week's attacks in Paris. Reuters/Stringer

The police raid on a former bakery in the city of Verviers was another palpable sign that terror had seeped deep into Europe's heartland as security forces struck against returnees from Islamic holy war in Syria.

"As soon as I opened the window, you could smell the gunpowder," said neighbour Alexandre Massaux following a firefight with automatic weapons and Kalashnikovs that was punctuated by explosions.

Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. At least two people were killed when Belgian counter-terrorist police raided an apartment used by suspected Islamist radicals on Thursday. Reuters
Belgian police inspect the entrance of an apartment in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. At least two people were killed when Belgian counter-terrorist police raided an apartment used by suspected Islamist radicals on Thursday. Reuters

The men, who were heavily armed, planned to target Belgium's police force, according to detectives. However, a federal prosecutor said there was no known link to the attacks in Paris last week that left 17 people dead.

"As soon as they thought special forces were there, they opened fire," federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said.

A Belgian special forces police blocks a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters
A Belgian special forces police blocks a street in central Verviers, a town between Liege and the German border, in the east of Belgium. Reuters

"The investigation started a few weeks ago before the attacks in Paris, I would like to stress," Eric van der Sypt said. "They [the suspects] all have Belgian nationality."

But he then added: "This operation stopped a major terrorist attack from taking place. You could say a second potential Paris has been averted."

The suspects immediately opened fire on police when they closed in on them near the city's train station, Mr Van der Sypt said in Brussels. He said: "These were extremely well-armed men," with automatic weapons.

After the gun smoke lifted, police continued with searches in Verviers and the greater Brussels area, seeking more clues in a weeks-long investigation that started well before the terrorism spree last week that led to 17 deaths in the Paris area. The Belgian operations had no apparent link to the terrorist acts committed in France.

Unlike the Paris terrorists, who attacked the office of a satirical newspaper and a kosher grocery store, the suspects in Belgium were reportedly aiming at hard targets: police installations.

"They were on the verge of committing important terror attacks," Mr Van der Sypt said in Brussels.

Belgium is now on a high level of terror alert for all police forces, with heightened warning for Brussels and Antwerp.

Read more: Taking liberties with those who declare war on fun and humour

Police carried out searches in 10 properties in Brussels, Verviers and Halle-Vilvoorde at the request of the federal prosecutor, as part of an investigation into individuals returned from Syria, according to a statement.

"During the investigation we found that this group was about to commit a terrorist attack in Belgium," the statement said.

"When the search warrants were executed in Verviers, the suspects immediately opened fire with automatic weapons on special police forces. They opened fire for several minutes before being neutralised. Two were killed, a third person who survived has been arrested.

"During this operation no police or civilians were harmed. The investigation is still going on."

Explosions

Local residents in Verviers, in the east of the country, heard a fusillade of machine gun shots and explosions.

One resident said: "I heard two explosions and saw two young men run away. They were between 25 and 30 years, of Arab origin."

Another local resident told RTBF television: "I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots. For the moment, I cannot tell you any more because I don't dare go out to see what is happening."

A third resident said "machine guns were firing for about 10 minutes."

Another resident told RTBF television: "I was just going to pick up my kids from school. We saw a blue van and another car in the middle of the street.

"At first, I thought it was an accident. But then we saw police cars right down the street. A man walking on the street fled. I started running. Immediately afterwards, we heard three or four large explosions and gunfire."

Earlier this week, police arrested an arms dealer alleged to be linked to the sale of weapons used in the Paris terrorist attacks.

Read more: Air France gives Charlie Hebdo copies away as funerals held

Neetin Farasula, from Charleroi in French-speaking southern Belgium, is thought to have been involved in negotiating the sale of guns to Amedy Coulibaly.

Prior to events in Verviers, the Belgian authorities had announced the arrest of a man in Charleroi, close to the French border, on suspicion of supplying ammunition to Coulibaly, the gunman responsible for shooting dead four Jews in the Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris on Friday.

The man voluntarily surrendered himself to police, claiming he had conned Coulibaly in a deal to buy a car but denying any involvement in arms sales.

Belgium was targeted by jihadists last year when a gunman shot dead four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May. Per head of population, Belgium is the European country from where the highest number of citizens have taken part in fighting for the Syrian rebels in the past four years.

Across Europe, anxiety has grown as the manhunt continues for potential accomplices of the three Paris terrorists, all of whom were shot dead by police. Authorities in Belgium signalled they were ready for more trouble by raising the national terror alert level from two to three, the second-highest level.

"It shows we have to be extremely careful," Mr Van der Sypt said. The Verviers suspects "were extremely well-armed men" equipped with automatic weapons, he said. Authorities have previously said 300 Belgian residents have gone to fight with extremist Islamic formations in Syria. It is unclear how many have returned.

"It sent shivers down my spine to think about it" that the suspects could have been trained in Syria, Mr Massaux said.

Prime minister Charles Michel said the increase in the threat level was "a choice for prudence".

"There is no concrete or specific knowledge of new elements of threat," he said.

Video posted online showed a dark view of a building amid blasts, gunshots and sirens, and a fire with smoke billowing.

No police were wounded or killed in the clash, at the height of the evening rush hour in a crowded neighbourhood of the former industrial city of 56,000, about 80 miles south east of the capital Brussels.

A Belgian connection figured in a 2010 French criminal investigation into a foiled terrorist plot in which Coulibaly was one of the convicted co-conspirators. The plotters included a Brussels-area contact who was supposed to furnish both weapons and ammunition, according to French judicial documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Hunt

Several other countries are also involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the other gunmen in the French attacks, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi.

In Spain, authorities said Coulibaly drove Boumeddiene from France to Madrid on December 31 and was with her until she took a January 2 flight to Istanbul, Turkey.

Spain's National Court said it was investigating what Coulibaly did in the country's capital with Boumeddiene and a third person who was not identified but is suspected of helping Boumeddiene get from Turkey to Syria.

France is on edge since last week's attacks, which began at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The paper, repeatedly threatened for its caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, buried several of its murdered staff members yesterday even as it reprinted another weekly issue with Mohammed on its cover.

Defence sources said France was also under an unprecedented cyber-attack with 19,000 launched after the country's bloodiest terrorist attacks in decades, frustrating authorities as they try to thwart repeat violence.

Around 120,000 security forces are deployed to prevent future attacks.

Calling it an unprecedented surge, Admiral Arnaud Coustilliere, head of cyber-defence for the French military, said about 19,000 French websites had been attacked in recent days, some carried out by well-known Islamic hacker groups.

The attacks, mostly relatively minor denial-of-service attacks, hit sites as varied as military regiments to pizza shops but none appeared to have caused serious damage, he said. Military authorities launched round-the-clock surveillance to protect the government sites still coming under attack.

The Kouachi brothers claimed allegiance to al Qaida in Yemen and Coulibaly to the Islamic State group. 

Two people have been killed and one arrested during a terrorism-related police operation against suspected jihadists in Belgium.

(Additional reporting by PA)

Telegraph.co.uk

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