Brussels terror alert reduced from top level

26th November 2015, Comments 0 comments

Belgium reduced the terrorism alert in Brussels from its highest possible level on Thursday after Prime Minister Charles Michel said the threat of a Paris-style jihadist attack was no longer as imminent.

The government had raised the alarm to top level four on Saturday amid warnings of an "imminent and serious threat", triggering a lockdown that saw schools and the metro shut down and troops patrolling the EU's de facto capital.

The decision to lower the alert level came despite the evacuation of a Brussels mosque on Thursday over a suspicious powder that turned out to be flour and fresh police raids amid a hunt for key Paris suspects.

"After a new evaluation by the Threat Analysis Coordination Agency the level has been lowered from four to three, meaning the threat is serious and credible," Michel told a press conference after meeting his security council.

"There are reasons that lead us to believe that the threat remains serious but that the imminent character is not now present in the same manner," he said.

Brussels will now join the rest of Belgium on a level three alert.

Key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam remains at large and is believed to have fled to Belgium after the attacks.

"This is a good decision, an important signal that we are little by little returning to a normal situation even if level 3 remains out of the ordinary," Deputy Prime Minister Kris Peeters told reporters as he arrived for the meeting, according to Belga news agency.

Prosecutors said police carried out two raids on Thursday in the town of Verviers near the German border, where two jihadists were killed and a major Islamist plot was allegedly broken up in January.

- Mosque powder alert -

Police also searched a house in a village near the airport town of Charleroi. There were no arrests in any of the operations.

Tensions remained high, with emergency services evacuating the Brussels Grand Mosque and decontaminating 11 people on Thursday after the discovery of a suspicious package containing white powder, amid fears it could be anthrax.

"It was just flour. Everything is negative, the cordon has been lifted," Brussels fire brigade spokesman Pierre Meys told AFP after the powder was tested.

For several days Brussels was locked down with armed police and troops patrolling near deserted streets and the metro system completely shut down, while schools stayed shut on Monday and Tuesday.

Schools and the metro system reopened partially on Wednesday and Michel said the metro would now be completely open from 0500 GMT on Friday.

The government has been under pressure to lower the alert, with Davis Cup tennis taking place in Belgium from Friday and a major Christmas market set to open this week.

Belgian police on Tuesday charged a fifth suspect in connection with the Paris attacks after a series of raids carried out during the lockdown.

It also emerged that four of the main suspects in the Paris attacks were on a list of radicalised people compiled by Belgium's intelligence services as early as June this year, officials said.

The list of 85 individuals included alleged Paris ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Salah Abdeslam and his brother Brahim, who blew himself up in Paris, and Mohamed Abrini, who was last seen driving Salah in a car on the eve of the attacks.

The list was sent by the intelligence agencies to the local authorities in Molenbeek, a run-down Brussels district dubbed a haven for extremists.

Meanwhile police in Italy announced they had uncovered 781 Turkish-made pump-action rifles in a truck heading for Belgium.

The "Winchester SXP" rifles -- legally sold in gun shops for hunting or self-defence -- were discovered, without the correct paperwork, in a Dutch lorry driven by a Turkish citizen at the northeast Italian port of Trieste.

© 2015 AFP

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