Brussels on lockdown in fear of Paris-style attacks
Brussels was on terror lockdown Saturday in fear of a Paris-style attack, with a gunman wanted over the deadly rampage in the French capital a week ago still on the run.
The Belgian capital closed its metro system and shuttered shops and public buildings as a terror alert was raised to its highest level over reports of an “imminent threat” of a gun and bomb attack similar to the horror seen in Paris.
The city’s historic Grand Place, usually bustling with tourists, was quiet, with just some stragglers crossing the cobblestones as an armoured vehicle stood outside the imposing town hall.
Investigators are working around the clock to track down Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, one of the gunmen still on the loose after a coordinated wave of attacks on Parisian nightspots that left 130 people dead on November 13.
Belgium-based jihadists are increasingly at the heart of the Paris probe, and police have intensified raids in the city’s immigrant districts in a rush to stop a repeat of Islamic State-inspired attacks that have killed hundreds around the world in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Charles Michel said authorities feared a “Paris-style” assault “with explosives and weapons at several locations”.
The carnage in Paris has put all of Europe on edge amid fears that IS extremists can move operatives freely among target countries in an abuse of the EU’s open-border Schengen zone system.
In Madrid, fans for Saturday’s El Clasico football match between Read Madrid and Barcelona were met by sniffer dogs, mounted police and countless identity checks.
In Turkey, police arrested a Belgian of Moroccan origin in connection with the Paris attacks in the resort of Antalya, the site of this week’s G20 summit, along with two other suspects, probably Syrians.
Ahmet Dahmani, 26, is accused of helping to scout the Paris attacks and then preparing to illegally cross the Turkish-Syrian border to rejoin IS after arriving in Turkey from Amsterdam on his Belgian passport.
– ‘All necessary measures’ –
The UN Security Council on Friday authorised nations to “take all necessary measures” to fight Islamic State (IS) jihadists after a wave of attacks across the world.
The UN resolution came after gunmen with an Al-Qaeda branch run by a notorious one-eyed Algerian militant besieged a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, killing 19 people, most of them foreigners.
Mali was struck a week after Paris and Beirut — where 44 people were killed in IS bombings — and three weeks after IS claimed to have downed a Russian plane in Egypt killing all 224 on board.
In grieving Paris, citizens defiantly filled cafe terraces Friday night to mark one week since the carnage, many observing a noisy minute of non-silence.
Outside La Belle Equipe restaurant where 19 people were gunned down, a crowd stood under a light rain singing the Marseillaise anthem before whooping and yelling at 9:20 pm (2020 GMT), when the attacks started.
Benoit Seblain, drinking a beer at a cafe not far from the Bataclan where 89 people were massacred at a rock concert, said Parisians must “live like we did before”.
The country has been shaken to its core by the attacks and a subsequent shootout on Wednesday between police and jihadists holed up in a Paris apartment.
Suspected attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in the raid along with his female cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen and an unidentified suicide bomber, who, according to DNA tests, is not known to police.
French police on Saturday released seven people arrested in he raid, but kept hold of Jawad Bendaoud, who has admitted lending the apartment to two people from Belgium “as a favour”.
Abaaoud was a notorious Belgian jihadist thought to be fighting in Syria, and his presence in Europe raised troubling questions about a breakdown in intelligence and border security.
The European Union agreed Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year as France extended a ban on public gatherings until November 30 and the start of a UN climate summit.
– ‘Possible theories’ –
Seven attackers were killed or blew themselves up during their Paris assault, while a huge manhunt is under way for Salah Abdeslam, 26, who is believed to have fled to Belgium.
Abdeslam, whose brother Brahim blew himself up outside a Paris bar, may be equipped with a suicide belt, according to Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged by Belgian authorities for allegedly helping Abdeslam return to Belgium after the attacks.
Attou’s lawyer Carine Couquelet told French TV her client has described Abdeslam as very nervous on the journey.
“There are many possible theories: was (Salah) a logistical support, was he supposed to blow himself up? Was he not able to do it? We don’t know.”