Sunday 22 September 2019

Soldiers replace the Christmas shoppers as Brussels faces its fourth day of lockdown

Soldiers and policemen patrol along the Boulevard Anspach, Brussels
Soldiers and policemen patrol along the Boulevard Anspach, Brussels

Sarah Collins in Brussels

Boulevard Anspach, the newly pedestrianised thoroughfare near Brussels' central square, has not seen much footfall in the last few days.

Soldiers and armoured cars - rather than shoppers and revellers - lined the street yesterday as the Belgian capital entered a third day of lockdown and steeled itself for a fourth.

I arrived home after a weekend abroad to a city that had an eerie holiday feel about it. The streets were free of cars, shops and restaurants were shuttered and the Christmas lights had been switched on.

But there was little in the way of festive cheer. A police cordon surrounded the Christmas markets at St Catherine square, which was the scene of one of the police raids earlier on Sunday evening.

Belgian authorities said they were keeping the terrorist alert at level four, the highest it can go, after arresting a total of 21 in a series of raids over the weekend and on Monday.

Crèches, schools, universities and sports centres were closed, concerts were cancelled, metro services were suspended and hospitals were putting off non-urgent consultations.

Locals who spoke to the Irish Independent said they were "nervous as hell" and "edgy" at the sight of police and army patrols on the streets.

Tallita (25) who lives near the scene of one of Sunday's raids, described an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and fear, with police "pointing guns at people and asking them to put their hands on their head" if they approached the cordoned-off area.

She recounted how she was eyed with wariness by her neighbours as she waited in the hallway, with a backpack by her side, for a lift to work yesterday.

A resident of Molenbeek, a neighbourhood in north-west Brussels that was home to two of the Paris suspects, said she felt slightly nervous about the lockdown but was more concerned about the toll it would take on the Muslim community.

"I'm not really afraid because I'm sure the terrorists can never win -rather, I feel sorry for them," said the 26-year-old, who didn't want to be named.

"I also feel sorry for all the Arabic and Muslim people that will suffer from all this tension."

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, who was in Brussels for a eurozone meeting, said that the extra security "wasn't heavy and it wasn't onerous" and that he felt safe travelling to Belgium.

Irish Independent

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