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Two dead in Belgium raid on ‘Syria terror group’

Belgian police on Thursday shot dead two suspected jihadists alleged to have been on the verge of a major terrorist attack in a new alarm for Europe days after 17 people were killed in Paris.

Prosecutors said a third suspect was arrested after being wounded when militants with Kalashnikov assault rifles opened fire on police raiding on a property in Verviers, eastern Belgium.

Police also conducted 10 searches in Brussels and its suburbs in an operation that came on the heels of last week’s Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

“This operational cell of about ten people, some of whom had returned from Syria, was on the point of launching significant terrorist attacks in Belgium,” Thierry Werts of the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office told a press conference in Brussels.

“During the search, certain suspects immediately opened fire at special forces of the police with automatic weapons. They opened fire for several minutes. Two suspects were killed and a third was arrested.”

No police or civilians were hurt in the operation in Verviers, a city with a large Muslim population close to the German border some 125 kilometres (70 miles) from Brussels, prosecutors said.

Belgian authorities later raised the terror alert for official buildings to its second highest level, saying that the planned attack targeted police.

In video footage shown on Belgian television, gunshots and explosions could be heard for several minutes and a blaze apparently erupts in the property.

Werts said that “even after one of the suspects was lying on the ground injured, he continued to fire.”

“I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots,” one local resident told local media RTBF. “For the moment, I cannot tell you any more because I don’t dare go out to see what is happening.”

Another local resident said “machineguns were firing for about 10 minutes.”

A third witness said he saw two young men apparently of North African origin “dressed all in black carrying a bag of the same colour,” adding that the pair looked terrified.

– Jihadist networks –

Some 325 people have left Belgium to fight with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, according to officials, giving the country the highest per capita number of residents becoming jihadists in Europe.

In May 2014, a suspected Islamist shot four people dead at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who had been in Syria, has been charged with murder.

The men targeted in a former bakery in Verviers had been under surveillance since returning from Syria a week ago and were believed to be about to spring an attack, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said they’d found “no link at this stage” to the Paris attacks.

But earlier Thursday, investigators said they suspect a Belgian man could have supplied Jewish supermarket gunman Amedy Coulibaly with his weapons.

The suspect, Neetin Karasular, had bought a car belonging to Coulibaly’s partner Hayat Boumeddiene, who has since fled France, apparently reaching Syria.

Karasular handed himself into police on Tuesday, saying he had been in contact with Coulibaly in recent months and had tried to “swindle” the Frenchman over the car deal, but was scared after the Paris attacks.

“The issue of weapons is under investigation,” prosecutors’ office spokesman Eric Van der Sijpt told AFP.

Investigators say they have found documents at Karasular’s house showing he negotiated with Coulibaly over weapons, including a Tokarev pistol of the sort used during the supermarket attack, Belga news agency reported.

Karasular will appear before a magistrate in Charleroi on Monday to find out if he will remain in custody.

Spain meanwhile opened an investigation Thursday into Coulibaly and Boumeddiene’s visit to Madrid shortly before the attacks.

Turkish authorities say Boumeddiene crossed into Syria on January 8 from Turkey. She had arrived in Istanbul on a flight from Madrid before the Paris attacks took place.