Brussels shuts down; officials warn of ‘imminent’ threat to public places

November 23, 2015 7:12 am

 

A Belgian Army soldier patrols on a main boulevard in Brussels. Photo / AP

The metro system closed down, department stores were shuttered,
concerts were cancelled, and residents retreated indoors Saturday (local
time) as the government warned of a “serious and imminent” threat
against the Belgian capital similar to the coordinated assault that
killed 130 in Paris just over a week ago.
Belgian Prime Minister
Charles Michel said that officials had identified shopping centers and
public transportation as soft targets for a possible attack involving
multiple assailants at multiple locations. The government warned
residents to avoid crowded spots. Bars and restaurants in the city
center were asked to close for the night at 6 p.m. as fears of another
terrorist strike in mounted.
The latest threat, following
one that led German officials to evacuate a soccer stadium Tuesday night
in Hanover, heightened fears across an already-tense continent and
showed the crippling effect of terrorism on daily life.

“The impact of our decision is enormous,” Belgian Interior
Minister Jan Jambon said of the city shutdown. “But if something were to
happen, the impact would be even bigger.”
As Belgian police
locked down the city, investigators continued to hunt for one of the
Paris attackers, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national who lived
in Brussels and may have returned after the attacks.
Searches of
homes overnight by police in the immigrant quarter of Molenbeek and
other neighborhoods in Brussels uncovered explosives and weapons, the
prime minister said. Belgian security officials said it appeared that
suspects were planning simultaneous attacks, explaining the decision to
raise the threat level to its maximum.
Late Friday, an additional
Belgian citizen was charged as an accomplice in connection with the
Paris attacks and participation in a terrorist organization. Authorities
declined to release his name.
The U.S. Embassy in Brussels also issued a security alert, warning U.S. citizens here “to shelter in place and remain at home.”
Armed
troops stood guard in front of hotels and at major intersections. Movie
theaters and public swimming pools were closed. A Saturday night
concert by popular French singer Johnny Hallyday in a Brussels music
venue capable of holding 18,000 was cancelled. By nightfall, plays and
other performances had been called off, and ticket-holders were sent
home.
Belgian officials said the city’s metro would remain closed through 3 p.m. Sunday, when the threat would be reassessed.

A Belgian Army soldier patrols in the main train station in the center of Brussels. Photo / AP
A Belgian Army soldier patrols in the main train station in the center of Brussels. Photo / AP
Belgians were scarce in the city center in Brussels. A
Saturday felt like a Sunday, with most shops closed. At the Notre-Dame
du Finistere church, a family celebrated a baptism, but a deacon kept a
close eye on the front door. In the Grand Plaza, home to a lively
open-air market, the mayor asked everybody to go home.
“Of course
I’m afraid. We all are. I even called my boss telling him I’d prefer
not to come to work today, but that was not an option,” said Linda
Faraj, selling Belgian waffles in a shop on Nieuwsstraat, a main
shopping boulevard that was deserted.
At an ice cream shop,
Eveline Lebruyn was sharing a scoop with her mother. “I think we should
continue our lives just like before,” Lebruyn said. “We can’t predict
where they will attack, or if they do, so I try not to worry.”
The manager wasn’t so sure. “I guess these threats must be very serious,” he said.
In
Paris, two of the attackers who detonated suicide vests at the Stade de
France remained unidentified, although investigators have found fake
Syrian passports for both of them. The identity of the third shooter who
died at the Bataclan concert hall is still unknown.
Police also
said Saturday that the DNA of the man who blew himself up Wednesday in
the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis during a pre-dawn raid – which killed
suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud – matches no known convicted or
suspected criminal in the country’s fingerprint and identification
database.
Investigators continue to search for Abdeslam, who was
last seen a week ago in a car pulled over by police near the Belgian
border, before his role in the attacks was known. The two Belgian men in
the car with him at the time have been detained. A lawyer for one of
the men told French media Saturday that her client described Abdeslam as
extremely angry and possibly “ready to blow himself up.”
In a
sign of the broad geographic footprint of the Paris plot – and the
growing number of conspirators involved in it – officials in Turkey
arrested a Belgian man of Moroccan descent, 26-year-old Ahmad Dahmani,
suspected of having scouted the locations of the Paris attacks before
Nov. 13. A Turkish government official said Saturday that security
forces believe Dahmani is an Islamic State militant who was preparing to
illegally cross the Turkish border into Syria.
Dahmani was
detained Monday at a luxury hotel in Antalya with two other terrorism
suspects, and a court order for their arrests was issued Friday. “We
believe that Dahmani was in contact with the terrorists who perpetrated
the Paris attacks,” the Turkish government official said.
In
Paris, police on Saturday extended the ban on public gatherings until
Nov. 30, although crowds have continued to form at the attack sites and
at the Place de la Republique, a site of national mourning.
More
than 15,000 people, including Muslim and Jewish community leaders,
marched in silence in a demonstration Saturday in Toulouse to denounce
“barbarism.” The Toulouse region has seen violence, too – a series of
attacks took place there in March 2012, including one at a Jewish day
school that killed four.

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