Frenchman held over Jewish museum shooting in Brussels

1st June 2014, Comments 0 comments

A Frenchman with suspected ties to Islamic radicals in Syria has been arrested over last week's fatal shooting at a Jewish Museum in Brussels, President Francois Hollande said Sunday.

The suspected gunman, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, was seized by customs agents on Friday as he arrived in the southern French city of Marseille on a bus from Amsterdam via Brussels.

Sources close to the investigation said he was carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun similar to those used in the May 24 attack in which three were killed and another left brain dead.

Hollande said the suspect was "arrested as soon as he set foot in France".

Nemmouche, originally from Roubaix in northern France is believed to have travelled to join Islamist fighters in Syria in 2013, and was known to the French domestic intelligence agency DGSI, said one source close to the case.

A judicial source said he had been detained on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise.

Simultaneous press conferences will take place in Brussels and Paris at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) on the arrest.

A lone gunman entered the Jewish museum in the heart of Brussels last Saturday, removed an automatic rifle from a bag and opened fire through a door before making an exit, chilling footage of the attack showed.

An Israeli couple and a Frenchwoman died on the scene and a 24-year-old Belgian man was left clinically dead.

Belgian media reported that the assailant used a camera to film his attack in the same way as Mohammed Merah, the Frenchman who shot dead several Jews in Toulouse two years ago.

Sources confirmed that alongside a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and a gun with ammunition in his luggage, Nemmouche was also carrying a miniature video camera.

"These weapons were of the type used in Brussels," said one source. Another source close to the investigation said that there were many elements "consistent with the shooting in Brussels".

- 'Silent' suspect -

The European Jewish Congress immediately drew a parallel between the events in Brussels and the shootings by Merah and called for greater security at Jewish institutions and tougher legislation for dealing with anti-Semitic crime.

Sources close to the investigation told AFP that during the first 24 hours of interrogation, Nemmouche remained silent.

He is being questioned by the DGSI who can hold him for up to 96 hours, until Tuesday, or 144 hours, to Thursday, if investigators invoke an imminent terrorist threat.

Nemmouche was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for a robbery in a small supermarket in the northern town of Tourcoing in August 2006, his lawyer Soulifa Badaoui said.

His family meanwhile reacted with horror, describing him as taciturn but harmless.

"He is nice, intelligent, educated and has done a year at university," Nemmouche's aunt told reporters, adding that the family was "very shocked."

She said Nemmouche had been raised in a foster home and then by his grandmother, adding that the family lost contact with him after he was sent to prison.

"He never went to the mosque or spoke of religion," she said, adding that he could have been radicalised in jail.

The attack was the first such incident in more than 30 years in Belgium and has revived fears of a return of violent anti-Semitism to Europe.

Some 40,000 Jews live in Belgium, roughly half in Brussels and the remainder in the port city of Antwerp.

Nemmouche's past also stands to revive a row in France over the monitoring of those who leave to country to fight in Syria.

France unveiled plans in April to try to stop the increasing numbers of young French Muslims heading to fight in Syria's civil war and becoming radicalised before returning home.

"The government is mobilised to track down jihadists and prevent them from causing more harm," Hollande said.

According to the latest figures, some 780 people have left France to fight with jihadists in Syria.

© 2014 AFP

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