Sunday 19 November 2017

Brussels defends its handling of terror attacks

Right-wing demonstrators protesting against terrorism in front of the old stock exchange in Brussels Photo: Reuters
Right-wing demonstrators protesting against terrorism in front of the old stock exchange in Brussels Photo: Reuters
Plain-clothes police clash with right-wing protesters on the streets of Brussels yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Riot police were called into action. Photo: AP

Lorne Cook

The Belgian government has sought to contain criticism of its handling of the Brussels attacks, as investigators launched 13 anti-terror raids in the capital and two other cities, taking four more people into custody.

In central Brussels, riot police used water cannon when scuffles broke out in front of the stock exchange, which has become a symbolic rallying point for people to pay their respects to those who died in Tuesday's suicide bombings.

Black-clad men carrying an anti-Isil group banner with an expletive on it held an agitated rally, but were pushed back by riot police.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon conceded yesterday that decades of neglect had hampered the government's response to violent extremism.

He said the government had invested €600m in police and security services over the past two years but acknowledged that Belgium's justice system and security services were still lagging behind.

Mr Jambon, whose offer to resign on Thursday was refused by the prime minister, also admitted some shortcomings prior to the March 22 suicide bombings in Brussels that killed at least 31 people and wounded 270 others.

"There have been errors," he said on VRT television.

Mr Jambon said it takes time to hire anti-terror specialists and specialised equipment and insisted that the government's new investments needed time before they would become visible to the public.

Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, said yesterday morning's raids were linked to a "federal case regarding terrorism" but did not specify whether they had any links to the last Tuesday's attacks. The 13 raids were launched in the capital and the northern cities of Mechelen and Duffel.

An investigating judge was due to decide last night whether the four would remain in custody. Five were released after questioning.

As international pressure on Belgium has mounted for serving as an unwitting rear-base for terrorists who launched the November 13 massacres that left 130 dead in Paris, the government has felt forced to defend its choices and the actions of investigators.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are demanding an inquiry.

Belgian police and the army have been deployed, sometimes around the clock, at major buildings and sites in the capital in increasing numbers since November, when Brussels went into lockdown over fears that top Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam had returned and was hiding there.

As it turned out, Abdeslam had returned but police did not find and arrest him until March 18, four days before suspects from his network exploded suicide bombs in Brussels.

Belgian investigators have been slammed for not questioning Abdeslam long enough or hard enough after he was shot in the leg during his arrest.

Police have also been criticised for taking too long to get to Zaventem airport on Tuesday morning after two suicide bombers blew themselves up there - and left an even bigger third suitcase full of explosives that did not go off.

Mr Jambon and Justice Minister Keen Goens were grilled by legislators on Friday over how authorities had failed to arrest suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui before he blew himself up in the packed departure hall at Brussels Airport.

Turkey has said that Bakraoui - whose brother Khalid was the suicide bomber at the Maelbeek subway station - was caught near Turkey's border with Syria in 2015 and Ankara had warned Brussels and the Netherlands that he was "a foreign terrorist fighter". Belgian authorities said they did not know he was suspected of terror-related activities until after he had been deported to the Netherlands.

Irish Independent

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