Belgium confronts terror fears

27th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

Belgium is asking serious questions about how the nation would respond to a terrorist attack. Are concerns justified? Aaron Gray-Block reports.

The recent bomb attacks in London and Egypt have sparked intense soul-searching in Belgium.

The subsequent re-think unearthed alarming reports about the nation's inability to respond adequately to a terrorist attack.

As the European capital and Nato headquarters, Belgian media pounced on the vulnerability concerns.

This was highlighted by newspaper 'De Standaard' that warned the nation did not even have specific disaster legislation in place.

It said legislation signed more than two years ago regulating national disasters still needed follow-up laws authorising the measures and outlining their implementation.

Consequently, the newspaper said governors and mayors do not know how they should respond to new emergencies and have not started training personnel.

Enraged by these claims and other negative media statements, an Interior Ministry spokesman pointed to a Cabinet decision on 20 July 2005.

He said that decision finalised the legal framework for the federal government legislation agreed on in January 2003 aimed at regulating disaster plans for the nation's provinces and communities.

The spokesman also stressed that the regional legislation was in addition to a national disaster plan.

"But we will not deny the attacks in London create new risks. We are evaluating the national risks created by terror attacks in Belgium," he said.

And other sources maintain that the legislation is yet to be put into practice, while an Interior Ministry spokeswoman contradicted her colleague by admitting point blank that Belgium lacks a real disaster plan.

Health Minister Rudi Demott also indicated last week in evaluating the Ghislenghien gas disaster that various factors were still being "fine tuned".

European Commission spokesman Michael Mann, however, remains confident and said it is the Belgian authorities' responsibility to secure the EU capital.

"If measures do need to be taken, that's to be done by the Belgian authorities and we assume that they will be taken," he said.

Capacity concerns

After the terrorist bombings in Egypt last weekend, Belgian Minister of State Willy Clase said the EU had to do more to prevent attacks.

"You cannot rule out that sooner or later Brussels will be chosen by fundamentalists as a target. Just as other European countries, we are not doing enough," he said.

He added that terrorists will one day carry out a chemical, biological or radioactive attack.

Brussels governor Véronique Paulus de Chatelet subsequently tried to dodge responsibility for the city's emergency response efforts on Tuesday.

She claimed the Belgian capital was not prepared for a terrorist attack and demanded greater funding for emergency response efforts.

If that funding failed to come, the implication was that Interior Minister Patrick Dewael would need to take responsibility for the city.

However, Dewael stressed that Paulus de Chatelet was responsible for co-ordinating the city's disaster plan and said the issue was being worked on. He also said there was sufficient funding.

However, the ministry spokesman admitted there were co-ordination problems and that these were being looked into.

Stepping into the fray, the Brussels fire brigade backed the governor's warning and said it has access to just 83 intervention plans of 714 public places deemed to be soft targets in Brussels.

Due to staff capacity problems it could take years to draw up plans of building exits and water connections.

Those same capacity problems mean that the Brussels fire brigade will not be able to cope with a disaster similar to the London terrorist attacks.

The fire brigade would only be able to respond to emergencies at two metro stations at the same time. Radio communication is also poor.

No cause for panic

Reports first emerged two weeks ago that

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