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Belgium charges two linked to Syria jihadist recruitment

Belgian authorities on Monday charged two people in connection with a probe into a Chechen extremist group suspected of seeking to recruit jihadists to fight in Syria, federal prosecutors said.

The two were among 16 people detained for questioning in 21 raids that took place Monday mainly in the Flemish-speaking Flanders region, but the other 14 were later released, a prosecutor’s spokesman told AFP.

The authorities plan to issue warrants for the arrest of three other people in connection with the case, spokesman Jean-Pascal Thoreau said.

“The two people …were arrested in connection with a network aiming to recruit fighters to send them to Syria,” Thoreau said.

He said the pair are charged with terrorism-related offences, but added that he would not have the details of those charges until Tuesday. Nor did he give details on the suspects’ identities.

The prosecutor’s office said in an earlier statement that the “investigation targeted religious jihadism in a part of the Chechen community.”

It said the police carried out the raids simultaneously because the two “extremist and Salafist Chechen groups… were linked to each other,” the office said.

But the authorities later found no immediate evidence to suggest the second group was preparing to launch an attack in Belgium, as had earlier been suspected, the federal prosecutor’s office said.

The raids took place in Ostend, Bredene, Antwerp, Jabbeke, Louvain, and Namur.

The investigation into the group suspected of recruiting fighters for Syria was launched in February after prosecutors said the police obtained information that a person from the port city of Ostend “was wounded,” apparently after waging jihad in Syria, and “returned to Belgium in order to receive medical care”.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel praised the work of the police and courts who “once again showed the full mobilisation and determination of the authorities to fight terrorism without let-up”.

He added: “We will leave no place in our democracy for any of these people who represent a real threat to our citizens”.

The prosecutor’s office said “the investigators worked closely with US authorities in order to be able to check communication from WhatsApp,” the phone technology allegedly used by the suspects.

In January, Belgian police officers said they thwarted an alleged Islamist plot to mount attacks against the police when they shot and killed two suspected militants in the eastern city of Verviers.