Belgium's lone wolf gunman felt 'harassed' by police

14th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

The lone wolf Belgian gunman who went on a murderous spree in the city of Liege, killing four people before turning a gun on himself, had a long criminal record and seemed fearful of returning to jail.

As a shocked nation sought to understand the motives behind the carnage by 33-year-old Nordine Amrani, tearful residents of Liege laid wreaths on the city's central Saint Lambert Square Wednesday, scene of the attack the previous day.

"It's awful just being here, having to take the bus, after what happened," said a woman on the square.

The site was packed with Christmas shoppers and children just out of school when Amrani lobbed grenades at bus shelters and turned his assault rifle on the crowd.

A 15-year-old boy died on the spot while a baby of 17 months and a 17-year-old boy succumbed to injuries in hospital.

Police early Wednesday also found the body of a cleaning-woman of around 40 in a shed used by Amrani to stash cannabis plants and an impressive collection of illegal weapons.

"Nordine Amrani committed suicide with a bullet to the head," Liege city prosecutor Daniele Reynders told a press conference.

"He left no message to explain his act."

But Reynders said Amrani, a Belgian of Moroccan descent left orphaned at an early age, had been summoned by police at about the same time he went on the rampage, but never showed up.

Officials and lawyers painted the picture of a man with a passion for arms and a busy criminal past afraid of being thrown back behind bars, 14 months after being released on parole.

Police from the vice squad wanted to question him in relation to an inquiry into sexual harassment, according to Le Soir daily.

"He was a delinquent who was in trouble throughout his life, up before children's courts, petty courts, appeals courts," said Cedric Visart de Bocarme, the prosecutor for the Liege region.

One of his lawyers, Jean-François Dister, said Amrani had called him Monday and Tuesday about the 1:30 pm summons.

"He was quite anxious about the possibility of returning to prison. I think it worried him a lot," Dister told RTL-TVI.

Lister said he was "nervous" but not to the point of killing. "I still don't understand what happened."

Amrani was released from jail on parole in October 2010 after serving much of a 42-month drugs sentence handed down after a 2007 arrest for possession of 2,800 cannabis plant. Police also seized more than 9,000 weapons parts at the time.

On Tuesday, officers found nine magazines left in his bag on top of the automatic rifle, hand-gun and four grenades used in the attack, Reynders said.

She said Amrani had respected the terms of his conditional release. He had married, found a home, registered for unemployment benefits, regularly saw a psychologist for therapy and was on a metal-workers training programme.

"He liked arms and had a record but he was a very poised, very calm man," said another of his former lawyers -- who goes by the same surname but is not related -- Abdelhadi Amrani.

"I would never have expected him to be behind the drama in Liege," he told RTBF television. "He must have snapped."

The lawyer said that once when visiting Amrani in prison, "he said he was desperate and at times had black thoughts."

"He felt 'harassed' by the police," he added. "After completing his (last) sentence he felt he'd paid his debt to society but felt harassed by officers who'd bring up earlier cases."

The baby was the latest victim after officials revised the initial toll downwards, with a 75-year-old woman previously reported dead said by the prosecutor to be alive but in critical condition, along with several others.

Around 120 people were injured, said Home Affairs Minister Joelle Milquet, who broke off European Union talks to dash to Liege along with King Albert II and Queen Paola, and Belgium's just-named Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

Instead of heading to the police station, Amrani on Tuesday drove to Saint Lambert Square in his van and climbed to a roof above a bakery from where he had a bird's-eye view of the crowd below.

He lobbed grenades into packed bus shelters before opening fire on the panicked crowd, according to witnesses.

"We're afraid of returning to the square," said one Liege resident. "You can't imagine a drama like this taking place on such a busy square, a place we all go to all the time."

As gunfire echoed through the city Tuesday, rumours spread that several gunmen were on the loose in what was thought to be a possible escape bid involving a convict from the nearby courthouse.

The rumours sent residents fleeing in panic as police ran down streets in pursuit of non-existent gunmen.

Hours after the drama, people wept on sidewalks amid the wail of ambulance sirens and the roar of helicopters overhead. There were pools of blood on the streets.

Prosecutor Reynders said that in his numerous brushes with the law, Amrani's mental stability "was never in question."

© 2011 AFP

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