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11/12/2016

Belgium extends top threat alert for Brussels to Monday

Global Europe

Belgium extends top threat alert for Brussels to Monday

Belgian soldiers guard La Grande Place. [Reuters]

Belgium said it faced a serious and imminent threat of a Paris-style attack, and kept Brussels on maximum alert on Monday as security forces searched for militants thought to be at large in the capital.

Prime Minister Charles Michel, speaking after a meeting of security chiefs called to review the threat status, said the capital’s metro, universities and schools would be closed on Monday.

For the rest of the country, a threat level of three on a four-tier scale would remain in place, Michel said. Brussels would remain at level four, meaning an attack was imminent, as it has been since Saturday.

“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Michel told a news conference.

Possible targets were malls, shopping streets and public transport, Michel said, adding the government would boost police and army presence in the capital beyond already high levels.

He said a new evaluation of the situation would be made on Monday afternoon and everything was being done to return the city to normal as quickly as possible.

Commuters trying to get to work on Monday are expected to suffer delays as a result of the metro closure, though some companies had already indicated on Sunday they were ready for staff to work from home.

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead after links with Brussels emerged.

In France, investigators on Sunday extended into a fifth day the detention of a man arrested on Wednesday outside the building where the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks died in a raid. Police also released a picture of a man they said had blown himself up in the attacks and called for witnesses.

Two of the Paris suicide bombers, Brahim Abdeslam and Bilal Hadfi, had been living in Belgium. Fugitive suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, Brahim’s 26-year-old brother, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks.

Earlier, Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Salah Abdeslam was not the only security threat.

“It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person,” he told broadcaster VRT. “We’re looking at more things, that’s why we’ve put in place such a concentration of resources.”

Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, was quoted by broadcaster RTBF as saying there were “two terrorists” in the Brussels area ready to carry out violence.

Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Brahim and Salah, urged Salah in an interview on RTBF television to give himself up, adding that he believed Salah was still alive because he had had a last-minute change of heart while in Paris.

Intelligence, police and judicial officials reviewed the alert status during the day. The national security council, including top ministers, convened later on Sunday.

The government has advised the public to be alert rather than panic-stricken. People have been told to avoid crowds in the capital, while authorities have also closed museums, cinemas and shopping centres. Clubs and venues have cancelled events.

Brussels’ chief rabbi Albert Gigi told Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday that the city’s synagogues were shut over the weekend for the first time since World War Two.

Soldiers are on guard in parts of Brussels, a city of 1.2 million people and home to institutions of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO.

That said, Brussels on Sunday morning resembled most other Sundays, with the normal limited number of shops, such bakeries and small supermarkets open, and many churches in the largely Catholic country still holding services. However, larger markets were shut.

The latest measures go far beyond those taken the last time Brussels was put on level four alert, for about a month at the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, when authorities intercepted a plot to free convicted Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi from a Belgian jail.

Then the city closed the downtown Christmas market early and cancelled its New Year fireworks display. 

Obama: ‘We’re not afraid’

With the world on edge over the jihadist threat, US President Barack Obama said the most powerful tool in the fight against IS was to say “that we’re not afraid”.

He added that he would go ahead with an upcoming visit to Paris for UN climate talks and called on other countries to show similar resolve.

As well as Obama, French President Francois Hollande is to meet world leaders in coming days including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron.

The UN Security Council on Friday authorised “all necessary measures” to fight jihadist violence after a recent wave of attacks, including the downing of a Russian aircraft in Egypt with the loss of 224 lives and the storming of a luxury hotel in Mali that left 19 dead.

Putin said Friday’s Mali attack, in which six Russians died, showed “terrorism knows no borders” and urged “the broadest international cooperation.”

In a still jittery Paris meanwhile, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a chemical or biological attack “was among the risks” the country faced but that all possible precautions had been taken.

He added that French jets would be able to launch air strikes on IS targets in Syria and Iraq from the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean starting Monday.