Terror threat paralyses Brussels, EU institutions

'Think about your will' advert conveniently placed on terrorism-themed cover. [Georgi Gotev]

The European Council decided to cancel the majority of non-essential meetings scheduled to take place today (23 November) and the European Commission encouraged its staff to work from home, in what appears to be a capitulation to a terror threat, which has transformed Brussels into a ghost city.

Cinemas, concert halls, shops, the metro and many restaurants and bars remained closed over the weekend in Brussels, prompting comments that the EU capital starts looking like the Islamic State caliphate, in Syria.

To add insult to injury, a Belgian weekly distributed free of charge, features an ad “Think about your will” on its cover page, dedicated to the terror threat.

Belgian police arrested 16 more people in late night raids searching for those behind the deadly 13 November attacks in Paris, but failed to find a prime suspect as the government locked down the capital for a third day today.

“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,” Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference early on Sunday evening (22 November).

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

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said 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. That’s why we’ve put in place such a concentration of resources.”

Shortly afterwards, armed police backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters stationed overhead began a series of raids in which 19 premises in Brussels and three in the industrial city of Charleroi, 50 km (35 miles) to the south, were searched.

The Council, where EU member states sit, raised its alert state to ORANGE (from yellow), as a precautionary measure, consistent with the increased Belgian threat level of 4 (maximum level).

Finance ministers of the eurozone countries will go ahead with a meeting at the European Council in eastern Brussels, EU officials said, but other EU meetings have been cancelled.

Andrew Duff, a former British liberal MEP, twitted that cancelling non-essential meetings, like the Council did, could “catch on in Brussels”.

The Commission said its alert level stayed “yellow”, but closed European schools, creches and garderies and encouraged its staff to “flexible working arrangements” and teleworking.

The overall impression is that Brussels, unlike Paris, where the population ostensibly defends its way of life after the deadly attacks, has surrendered to fear. But many in social media derided the situation.

Brussels’ chief rabbi said the city’s synagogues were shut over the weekend for the first time since World War Two. Soldiers are on guard at Jewish sites and public buildings.

US President Barack Obama said the most powerful tool to fight the terror of the Islamic State extremist group was to say “that we are not afraid”.

Obama said on Sunday that he would press ahead with a visit to Paris for UN climate talks in December, calling on world leaders to show similar resolve.

“I think it’s absolutely vital for every country, every leader, to send a signal that the viciousness of a handful of killers does not stop the world from doing vital business,” he stated.

The UN Security Council on Friday authorised nations to “take all necessary measures” to fight Islamic State jihadists after a 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 which left 19 dead.

Russia voted for the French-sponsored resolution, which signaled a rare diplomatic convergence. For four years, Russia and the West have sparred over the war in Syria, with the Kremlin staunchly backing the government and Western powers backing the opposition.

The resolution, however, offers no legal basis for military action and doesn’t cite Chaper 7 of the UN Charter, which authorises the use of force. 

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