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Belgium probes fatal attack by knifeman on terror watch list

The knifeman who fatally stabbed a Brussels police officer before being shot and arrested was already on a watch list maintained by Belgium’s terrorism monitoring agency, federal prosecutors said Friday.

Investigators told reporters that the suspect “Yassine M.”, who was born in Brussels in 1990, had shouted “Allahu Akbar” — “God is greater” — as he lunged at two officers in a patrol car on Thursday.

One of the policemen, identified only as 29-year-old Thomas M., was stabbed in the throat and died shortly afterwards. The second 23-year-old officer has been operated on for wounds to the right arm and will survive.

The federal prosecutor has referred the case to an investigating magistrate as an alleged “murder and an attempted murder committed in a terrorist context”.

A second police patrol intervened during the incident, which took place near the Belgian capital’s Gare du Nord station in the early evening, and the attacker was shot and wounded and is detained in hospital.

Earlier in the day, the suspect had presented himself at a Brussels police station making what the head of the Brussels prosecutor’s office, Tim De Wolf, described as “incoherent remarks”.

“He spoke of hatred against the police and asked to be taken care of psychologically,” De Wolf said.

Yassine M. was taken by officers to the psychiatric emergency room of a Brussels hospital, but was not arrested or detained as he did not, the officials said, meet the criteria for a involuntary committal.

– Islamist attacks –

“He was voluntary,” De Wolf said, explaining that police had left the suspect at the hospital under the care of nurses.

“Later, the police contacted the hospital again to check whether the person had been kept under observation. It turned out that he had left the hospital,” the Brussels prosecutor’s office said.

Yassine M. had been imprisoned between 2013 and 2019 for “common law offences” but was also on a list drawn up by the Belgian terror observatory the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (OCAM), which monitors extremism.

Brussels is currently holding the trial of those accused of involvement in the 2016 Islamic State group attacks that killed 32 people at the city’s main airport and in a crowded metro station.

The trial is the largest ever held in front of a Belgian jury, with 960 civil plaintiffs represented and the sprawling former NATO headquarters converted into a high-security court complex on the edge of the city.

Between 2016 and 2018 Belgium saw several fatal Islamist terror attacks against the police or military.

The last attack classified as a terrorist offence took place in the city of Liege in May 2018, when a radicalised attacker shot dead two policewomen and a student before being gunned down by officers.

The OCAM watchdog’s general threat level is currently set at “medium” — or at two on a scale of one to four, where one is “low” and four is “very serious”.