Police kill two men in foiled jihadist attack in eastern city
* Counter-terrorism raids in several towns
* Two men opened fire on police and were killed
* Third man detained, prosecutors say
* No clear link to Paris attacks, but focus on Syria fighters
Belgian security forces killed two terror suspects in a fierce shoot-out in the eastern city of Verviers foiling a major attack against police buildings.
A third man was detained in the eastern city of Verviers, where police commandos ran into a hail of gunfire after trying to gain entry to an apartment above a town centre bakery. All three were citizens of Belgium, which has one of the biggest concentrations of European Islamists fighting in Syria.
The suspects immediately opened fire on police when they closed in on them near the city's train station, Magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said in Brussels.
Coming a week after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, the incident heightened fears across Europe of young local Muslims returning radicalised from Syria. But prosecutors' spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt said the Belgian probe had been under way before the Jan. 7 attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
"These were extremely well-armed men," with automatic weapons, Mr Van der Sypt said. Police buildings were the target, and an attack had been expected in hours or days, he said.
No police were injured in the operation, he said.
“A specialised investigating judge in Brussels specialised in terrorism commanded about 10 search warrants,” Mr Van Der Sypt said. “These search warrants were executed in an investigation concerning several people who we think are an operational cell – certain people who came back from Syria. During the investigation we found this group was about to commit terrorist attacks in Belgium.”
"The suspects immediately and for several minutes opened fire with military weaponry and handguns on the special units of the federal police before they were neutralised," he said.
There was an intense firefight for several minutes on an upper level of a building in Verviers where the raid took place. The building is multi-storey and appears to be residential.
"We still expect a number of arrests," said Mr Van der Sypt. No police were wounded or killed in the firefight, which occurred at the height of rush hour in a crowded area.
Other raids on the homes of men returned from the civil war there were conducted across the country, Van Der Sypt said, adding that they were suspected of planning attacks on Belgian police stations. Security had been tightened at such sites.
"The searches were carried out as part of an investigation into an operational cell some of whose members had returned from Syria," he said. "For the time being, there is no connection with the attacks in Paris."
The magistrate said more anti-terrorist raids were under way in the Brussels region and Verviers, adding that Belgium's terror alert level was raised to its second-highest level. The operation was part of an investigation into extremists returning from Syria, authorities said.
Verviers is a former industrial town with a large immigrant population about (80 miles southeast of the capital, Brussels.
Witnesses speaking on Belgium's RTBF radio described a series of explosions followed by rapid fire at the centre of Verviers, near a bakery and in the area of the train station. Video posted online of what appeared to be the raid showed a dark view of a building amid blasts, gunshots and sirens, and a fire with smoke billowing up.
Earlier today, Belgian authorities said they were looking into possible links between a man they arrested in the southern city of Charleroi for illegal trade in weapons and Amedy Coulibaly, who prosecutors say killed four people in a Paris kosher supermarket last week.
The man arrested in Belgium "claims that he wanted to buy a car from the wife of Coulibaly," said Mr Van der Sypt. "At this moment this is the only link between what happened in Paris."
At first the man came to police himself claiming there had been contact with Coulibaly's common law wife regarding the car, but he was arrested following a search on his premises when enough indications of illegal weapons trade were found.
Mr Van der Sypt stressed there was no established weapons link with the Paris attack at this moment.
Several countries are now involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the two other gunmen in the French attacks.
After the violence in Verviers, La Meuse newspaper quoted an unidentified police officer saying: "We've averted a Belgian Charlie Hebdo."
Two French brothers, who like Coulibaly claimed allegiance to Islamist militants in the Middle East, killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Belgium has seen significant radical Islamist activity among its Muslim population.
Public television RTBF showed video of a building at night lit up by flames, with the sound of shots being fired. Marie-Laure from Verviers told RTBF she was in the street with her children when a police commando told them to run for cover.
"When we began running, we heard three or four big explosions and shots," she said. "It was really startling."
Per head of population, Belgium is the European country from where the highest number of citizens have taken part in fighting with Syrian rebels in the past four years, data compiled by security researchers have shown.
Belgium has taken a lead in EU efforts to counter the threat perceived from the return of "foreign fighters" from Syria. The Belgian government believes about 100 of its nationals have come back from there, while a further 40 may have been killed and about 170 are still in the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Belgium is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State and has six F-16 aircraft taking part in bombing raids on Syria and Iraq.
A court in Antwerp is due to deliver its verdict on 46 people accused of recruiting young men to join jihadists or of becoming jihadists in Syria, Belgium's largest Islamist militant trial to date. The court was to have given its verdict this week, but it was delayed for a month after the Paris violence.
In Germany, police arrested a suspected supporter of the insurgent group Islamic State who was recently in Syria, federal prosecutors said.