Under-siege Brussels waits for lockdown lift

23rd November 2015, Comments 0 comments

With schools closed and metro stations shut in Brussels by the most drastic measures of their kind in Europe, Belgians are wondering when the top-level terror alert in their capital will be lifted.

An eerie atmosphere hung over the city for a third day with soldiers in camouflage patrolling everywhere, from railway stations to EU institutions and the largely empty cobbled square of the Grand-Place.

"It's sad," young mother Tatiana said as she peered through the window of her eight-year-old son Oleg's shuttered elementary school in the Heren neighbourhood, near NATO headquarters.

"He'll stay at home with his little sister who was meant to go to nursery school. It's a shame, he likes school... I hope it's just for today, and that tomorrow will be calm."

Belgium's government was deciding on Monday whether to maintain the city's terror alert at its highest ever level, after raising it early Saturday in anticipation of "imminent" attacks like those that hit Paris on November 13.

With arrests and police raids overnight adding to the jitters, schools and nurseries were closed on Monday "until further notice" in this city of 1.2 million people, leaving tens of thousands of parents in the lurch.

Outside the city centre, windswept schoolyards remained empty of children.

In the scenic Cinquantenaire Park, just behind EU headquarters, families enjoyed the novelty of playing in the late autumn sun on what was meant to be a business and school day.

In downtown Brussels, the only real activity was deliverymen offloading crates for near-empty shops as builders hammered together stalls for a Christmas market meant to open on Friday.

- 'Life has to go on' -

On cafe terraces, a few clients braved their fear keeping warm just metres (yards) from where police raided homes and arrested terror suspects just hours earlier.

Michel and Patricia, a retired couple from a Dutch-speaking suburb, stood outside a closed sporting goods shop where they had hoped to buy a coat.

"We have to be careful, but life has to go on -- otherwise we're finished," said Patricia.

"My grandson said we should up sticks and move to the south of the Yser river, just like in World War I (after the Germans invaded)," said her husband Michel. "'There, they can't touch us,' my grandson said."

There was a boost for drivers in a city that normally has some of the worst traffic in Europe, with the roads during morning rush hour being noticeably freer than usual.

But public transport was chaotic with the metro remaining closed and little information for frustrated travellers.

At bus stops, people trying to get to work waited in the cold for buses that came infrequently, as city drivers also stayed home to mind their children.

Trams mostly operated normally with commuter trains also arriving on time, although to mostly deserted stations patrolled by masked soldiers.

"It's clear that we are taking the necessary measures to guarantee security, but life must go on in Brussels," said Interior Minister Jan Jambon.

Public offices remained open, he said, even though sports and cultural events were overwhelmingly cancelled.

Fast-food restaurant manager Christophe said he saw little chance of much business given the unusual circumstances but decided to open up anyway.

"The offices are open after all," he said, though he expected to close up early.


© 2015 AFP

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