Belgium police arrested 16 people during early morning raids on Sunday following a major security lockdown. Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam was not among those arrested. Nineteen raids were carried out in various Brussels neighbourhoods including Molenbeek — a poor immigrant district where Adbeslam is from. Police made three other raids in the industrial town of Charleroi, where an international airport is sited. Police did not find any weapons or explosives during the raids. Belgian police urged the media and residents to respect a social media blackout during a series of police operations late Sunday as security forces continued to hunt for Abdeslam, a key suspect in last week’s atrocities in the French capital.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announced earlier that Brussels will remain at the highest possible alert level Monday, with schools, universities and metros closed over a “serious and imminent” threat of attacks similar to those that struck Paris. Armed officers and troops could be seen patrolling the near-deserted streets of Brussels all weekend after the government raised the terror alert to the highest level of four in the city of more than a million that is also home to the NATO and European Union headquarters.
Belgian federal prosecutor spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt detailed the raids during a press conference. A judge is scheduled to decide on Monday whether to continue detaining those arrested during the raids. Sunday’s raids in the center of Brussels escalated what had been low-key precautions into a highly visible and often jittery military-style operation in a city usually associated with the somnolent activity of the European Union. The operation began shortly after the Belgian government met on the crisis and decided to maintain for a second day the highest possible alert level in Brussels.
Three people have so far been charged in Belgium, where French authorities say the Paris attacks were organized among Brussels’ substantial network of Islamic State followers, some of whom have fought in Syria. Two admit they drove Abdeslam back to Brussels from Paris but deny taking part in any violence. Fear of what Abdeslam or other suspected jihadists might be planning caused Belgium to call off an international soccer match last Tuesday. Late on Friday, it raised to the maximum Level Four the security alert in the capital. Michel renewed that advice on Sunday, shutting much of Brussels for a third day on Monday.
At least three of the nine men suspected of carrying out the Paris attacks were based in Brussels. Two men were held by Belgian authorities last week on suspicion of picking Abdeslam up in the French capital and driving him back to Belgium after the attacks, which killed 130 and injured hundreds more. Michel held a tense press conference on Sunday afternoon.
We still fear attacks here … involving several individuals striking simultaneously in several places,” “indications” that transport systems, commercial centres, shopping streets and busy places were targets. “We realise that these measures will complicate economic and professional life … and we are doing everything we can to return to normality as soon as possible.”
Forced indoors, some of Brussels’ multilingual 1.2 million residents took to social media to share and joke about their frustration. Twitter hashtag #BrusselsLockdown spawned many photos of kittens, some in combat gear, a wry reference to the security level: Four, or in French, Quatre – pronounced Cat’. Belgian officials have rejected widespread criticism of the country’s intelligence services and counter-terror efforts. But the news that a Belgian man suspected of undertaking reconnaissance for the Paris attacks’ targets has been held by Turkish police has underlined the country’s role as a base for those behind the plot.
Belgium reportedly supplies more foreign fighters to Syria than any other EU country in per capita terms. Many have come from Molenbeek, the Brussels borough with a large Muslim community that has long been a concern. Soldiers joined police officers on patrols in Brussels over the weekend. Many public spaces in the usually bustling capital were deserted, as people heeded official warnings to avoid crowds.