Lunchtime shoppers' stroll ended in carnage
It was supposed to be a lunchtime stroll or a Christmas shopping trip downtown, but three lives came to a brutal end in this normally quiet Belgian city Tuesday.
"He threw his arm around to throw something, and suddenly there was this explosion," said Nicolas, who ran for his life after known criminal Nordine Amrani, just out of jail last year, hurled explosives and opened fire at the crowd of shoppers.
At 12:30 pm (1130 GMT), the 33-year-old, perched on a baker's rooftop, targeted a lunchtime crowd in this eastern city near the German and Dutch borders, many of them waiting for buses.
By the end of the rampage, boys of 15 and 17 as well as a 75-year-old woman lay dead.
"Coming out of the high court, I saw a man on a cafe terrace ... with a bag at his feet," said Nicolas Gimenne.
"He reached in to pull something out, which I thought was a stone or something like that.
"He threw something maybe 20 yards, onto a bus shelter that exploded."
Gimenne said he heard four more explosions followed by lesser noises, evidently gunfire.
A cafe owner said that within minutes, sirens and helicopters could be heard approaching the scene.
"They barricaded the area and got people out of the square or the street and into the cafes and stores," the witness added. "They told us to run."
Outside CD and video chain store FNAC, staff told how bullets whizzed by and how they slammed down the shutters to escape the worst.
Another shop worker told Belgian television she saw the killer pull out a revolver afterwards and "shoot himself in the head."
She added: "That finished it, he was dead."
In the immediate aftermath, armed police on edge approached street -corners gingerly, peering round buildings before darting off down side streets.
Pools of blood lay on cobblestones as helicopters whizzed overhead and TV pictures showed two bodies lying on a road cordoned off as police ushered away a family with a young baby.
Emergency workers carried off one young woman with an injured, bootless leg as another girl told how she sought sanctuary in a church and a schoolmistress closed her gates.
New home affairs minister Joelle Milquet said she was "profoundly shocked by the brutality" of what she saw.
Belgium's prison service said Amrani had been released on bail last year after being put behind bars for arms and drugs offences, but was not aware of the killer being monitored by a specialist national terror threat agency.
© 2011 AFP