Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Belgian police arrest 16 in anti-terror raid

  • Police and military were a regular sight this weekend in much emptier than normal Brussels (Photo: Miguel Discart)

The Belgian police arrested 16 suspects in a raid on Sunday evening (22 November), but fugitive terror suspect Salah Abdeslam was not among them.

Authorities carried out 22 house searches in Belgium related to their investigation into a possible planned attack on Brussels, which has seen the centre of the city in a near-lockdown this weekend.

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  • Many seemed to heed the government's advice to avoid public places. (Photo: Miguel Discart)

Nineteen of the arrests were made in the Brussels region and three in Charleroi, fifty kilometers south of the Belgian capital. No explosives or guns were found, said Eric Van Der Sypt, spokesperson for the federal prosecutor's office, at a press conference shortly after midnight on Monday (23 November).

“The whole operation proceeded without noteworthy incidents”, Van Der Sypt said, with the exception of one search in the Brussels neighbourhood Molenbeek, during which an attempt was made to run down police officers with a vehicle.

Police officers shot at the vehicle twice and were later were to arrest the driver. It is not yet clear how the attempted ramming was related to their investigation.

Van Der Sypt praised the inhabitants of the city, who were asked not to publish any information or photos on social media during the raid. Media were also asked to refrain from publishing until the raid was over.

“We thank you for respecting the provided guidelines. I think that the searches occurred without incidents because they were respected”, he noted.

In a surrealistic twist, many Belgians who agreed not to post photos of the raid published cat pictures on social media instead.

The large-scale raid wrapped up a tense weekend, which started in the small hours of Saturday when Belgian authorities raised the threat level to the highest mark for Brussels, indicating a “serious and imminent” threat.

Many shops and cafes closed, as did most museums and the city's metro service. Many people seemed to heed the government's advice to avoid public places.

On Sunday evening, some hours before the police raid ended, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel announced that the city would remain on high alert on Monday.

Interior minister Jan Jambon told press Monday morning that he could not give away too many details, but that “the work is not yet done”.

“We will continue until we have caught the whole lot,” he told the country's national broadcaster VRT.

EU meetings affected

The threat level will disrupt life in the European capital on Monday, with schools and universities closed.

European Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who is in charge of the EU's personnel, said in a social media message that meetings in European Commission buildings can go ahead Monday, but she warned workers and visitors of heightened security checks.

“The safety and wellbeing of our staff remain our priority, so flexible working arrangements/telework are encouraged wherever possible,” Georgieva added.

European Parliament spokesperson Jaume Duch said that the plenary session will start in Strasbourg as planned and that Brussels staff will also have flexible working arrangements.

In contrast, the presidency of the Council, which is where member states gather, announced Sunday evening that it “has decided to cancel the majority of non-essential meetings scheduled to take place tomorrow in the Council building”. Only the Eurogroup, the meeting of education ministers, and “a limited number of senior officials meetings will take place as planned”.

Slovakia puts squeeze on free press ahead of election

Smer, Slovakia's ruling party, wants the country's media to give politicians a right-of-reply, or face stiff fines. Advocates of a free press are alarmed, and it poses a problem for the European Commission, whose vice-president is a Smer presidential candidate.

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