Brussels stays at top security alert over fears of Paris-style attacks

22nd November 2015, Comments 0 comments

Brussels will remain at the highest possible alert level Monday with schools, universities and metros closed over fears of "serious and imminent" attacks similar to those in Paris, the Belgian prime minister said.

Armed police and troops have been patrolling the near deserted streets of the tense capital all weekend after the government raised the terror alert to the highest level of four in the city of more than a million that is also home to the NATO and European Union headquarters.

Premier Charles Michel said after a meeting of the national security council that the metro system would remain shut and schools and universities would be closed over concerns that jihadists were planning a repeat of the Paris gun and suicide bombing attacks that claimed 130 lives on November 13.

"What we fear are similar attacks, with several individuals in several places," he told reporters.

"The threat is considered serious and imminent," he said, adding that the rest of the country would remain on security alert level three, meaning an attack is considered possible and the threat credible.

Officials will review the situation again on Monday, Michel added.

The historic Grand Place in central Brussels, usually bustling, was virtually empty at the weekend, with business badly hit in the run-up to Christmas as anxious residents heeded warnings to stay home.

Meanwhile, a massive manhunt was under way in Belgium for several suspects linked to the carnage in Paris, including Salah Abdeslam who is thought to have slipped past French security forces after taking part in the attacks, which were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

French police on Sunday released a photo of the third of three men who blew themselves up outside France's national stadium during the rampage, which also targeted the Bataclan concert hall as well as a string of bars and restaurants.

- Obama: 'We're not afraid' -

With the world on edge over the jihadist threat, US President Barack Obama said the most powerful tool in the fight against IS was to say "that we're not afraid".

He added that he would go ahead with an upcoming visit to Paris for UN climate talks and called on other countries to show similar resolve.

As well as Obama, French President Francois Hollande is to meet world leaders in coming days including Russia's Vladimir Putin, Germany's Angela Merkel and Britain's David Cameron.

The UN Security Council on Friday authorised "all necessary measures" to fight jihadist violence after a recent wave of attacks, including the downing of a Russian aircraft in Egypt with the loss of 224 lives and the storming of a luxury hotel in Mali that left 19 dead.

Putin said Friday's Mali attack, in which six Russians died, showed "terrorism knows no borders" and urged "the broadest international cooperation."

In a still jittery Paris meanwhile, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a chemical or biological attack "was among the risks" the country faced but that all possible precautions had been taken.

He added that French jets would be able to launch air strikes on IS targets in Syria and Iraq from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean starting Monday.

- Hollande 'shocked but focused' -

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was at the stadium along with Hollande attending a France-Germany football friendly when the three bombers blew themselves up outside, told the daily Bild he initially thought the first blast was fireworks, but soon realised it was a terror attack.

Hollande "was shocked, but at the same time very focused and determined," he added.

The French leader was evacuated, but Steinmeier and his team were asked to stay in the hopes of avoiding panic among the some 80,000 fans, he said.

Meanwhile Eagles of Death Metal, the Californian band that was playing at the Bataclan where 89 people were massacred, spoke out for the first time since the attacks, with singer Jesse Hughes saying that many fans died tyring to protect their friends.

"So many people put themselves in front of people," he said in an excerpt of an interview with Vice.com to be aired this week.

The suspected ringleader of the November 13 attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, died in a massive police raid in Paris on Wednesday along with his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen, reportedly a one-time party girl who turned to radical Islam about six months ago.

Abaaoud was a notorious Belgian jihadist thought to be fighting in Syria, and his presence in Europe has raised troubling questions about a Europe-wide breakdown in intelligence and border security.

Questions remain too over the role played by Abdeslam -- who used to run a bar with his brother Brahim in Brussels.

Brahim blew himself up outside a Paris bar on November 13.

A third brother, Mohamed Abdeslam, told Belgian TV he believed Salah had chickened out at the last moment and had not gone through with his attack.

With security forces actively searching for Salah, Mohamed said the family wanted him to give himself up.

"That way he can give us the answers we seek, our family and the families of the victims," he said.

"We would rather see Salah in prison than in the cemetery."

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© 2015 AFP

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