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Quiet Belgian town shocked by Islamist battle

As police swooped on a suspected Islamist cell in Belgium, the quiet streets of the town of Verviers were transformed into a war zone complete with gunshots and explosions.

Despite the town’s reputation as an Islamist hotbed, residents in the faded industrial town in Belgium’s French-speaking rustbelt said they were still shocked by the raid on Thursday night which quickly turned into a shootout between police and the suspects holed up in an apartment block.

“I was leaving the corner pharmacy when I saw the balaclava-clad police on the road in front, blocking traffic,” said Emric Bertholet, a 19-year -old apprentice, drinking an early morning Red Bull after a mostly sleepless night.

“Then two more police cars arrived and some more police got out. They shouted ‘Let’s go’, they ran and they went into the apartment. Then there was shooting everywhere and there were explosions.”

Two suspected Islamists were killed and a third arrested in the gunbattle, during which the militants were so determined that they carried on shooting even while lying on the ground injured, according to officials.

One of the windows of the apartment block was blown out, its frames covered with soot from the blast and the fire sparked inside the building by the police raid, AFP journalists at the scene saw.

The police commandos were long gone by Friday morning, with only local officers manning a cordon sealing off the whole road about 100 metres (yards) from the house.

– ‘Explosions everywhere’ –

“You could feel explosions everywhere, they were very strong. I’m in shock,” said neighbour Eva Ruiz, who heard the battle as she was on her way home from her job as a secretary at a nearby school.

Asked about the suspects targeted by the raid — part of a nationwide sweep that resulted in a total of 13 arrests — she said she did not know them.

“I’ve never heard of these guys, never seen them.”

Angelique, a Belgian woman who has converted to Islam, who lives one street away said she “heard what sounded like a loud firecracker. Then looking out I saw the police running in the street.”

She said she feared for community relations in Verviers, which is home to a diverse group of around 100 ethnic communities including many Muslims.

“It was already difficult (being a Muslim). It’s going to get even more difficult now,” she added.

Like the Brussels suburbs of Anderlecht or Vilvoorde, Verviers, which sits at the foot of the Ardennes near the German border, is reported to have an increasingly radicalised Muslim population.

With 20 percent unemployment and a largely bleak economic situation leaving many of its ethnic communities feeling dispossessed, it has proved fertile ground for recruitment, experts said.

Michael Privot, an expert on Islam affiliated to the Catholic University of Louvain who lives in Verviers and is a Muslim convert, said local youths could be easily influenced to join the jihadist cause.

“The young people who come from here, mainly of Moroccan origin and Algerian, are all linked. As soon as one of them goes (to fight jihad), that acts like a clarion call,” he told RTL television.

Security specialist Claude Moniquet told Belgian television that Algerian Islamists and people with links to Al-Qaeda were also known to have ties to the town.

But many in Verviers, which has a population of around 56,000, were quick to say they hoped that the raids would not cause tensions in the town.

Verviers mayor Marc Elsen spent the whole night trying to reassure his citizens and convey to the world media assembled in droves that his town would remain united.

“The Muslim community had the strongest reaction, one that says that none of this should exacerbate the delicate balance that makes this town stand on its feet,” he said, as fielded calls from local imams.