Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Brussels reopens schools despite terrorist threat

  • Many children still likely to stay home anyway (Photo: rigtor)

Brussels, the Belgian and EU capital, takes its first steps back to normality on Wednesday (25 November), but the terrorist threat level is still maximum.

All the city’s more than 1,000 schools and creches reopened after a two-day closure, while metro services, stopped since Saturday, resumed at 35 out of 69 stations.

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Authorities told parents that shopping malls, not schools, were the intended targets of a terrorist attack, and deployed 300 security officers at schools and 200 more on metro lines.

But with Brussels' security alert to stay at the maximum level - level four - until at least Monday, some schools quietly told parents they won’t take punitive action if children stay home.

Soldiers and armoured vehicles will continue to patrol main shopping streets and national museums are to stay closed.

The national crisis centre told employers it's up to them whether to let staff stay home until the threat level goes down.

The organisers of Christmas markets in the city centre, due to open Friday, have been told to wait until Thursday for advice on whether to go ahead.

Retail associations say Brussels' shops lost up to 68 percent of income in recent days, citing losses in the “tens of millions of euros."

Sporting events are partly to resume. But a Bruges-Naples football game is to be played at an empty stadium, the Jan Breydel stadium, due to lack of police capacity.

For its part, the US embassy in Brussels cancelled all consular appointments for the rest of the week.

It said: “We urge that you exercise caution and avoid large public gatherings such as major pedestrian walkways and shopping centres.”

Belgian authorities are still trying to apprehend 10 people believed to have been planning Paris-type attacks with “heavy weapons” and “suicide bombs."

Police raids in recent days caught one man charged with involvement in the Paris murders.

Belgian prosecutors on Tuesday also issued a national and a European arrest warrant for Mohamed Abrini, a 30-year old man filmed by CCTV at a petrol station in France with Salah Abdeslam, a Paris fugitive.

Meanwhile, the security scramble has triggered political debate.

Belgian education minister Joelle Milquet advised schools to create bunker-type rooms where children could shelter in the event of an attack.

But Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of Brussels, rejected the idea, saying “We cannot live under an Islamist regime … We have to avoid hysteria.”

Karl Vanlouwe, a Flemish member of the Belgian senate, writing in the Le Soir newspaper, accused the French-speaking Socialist Party of “20 years of laxity” which turned Brussels into a “rear base of Islamic barbarity."

The Flemish interior minister, Jan Jambon, said: “The question I ask myself is: Why did we succeed to eradicate radicalism in Antwerp and other Flemish cities, and why doesn’t it work in Brussels?”.

The French-speaking foreign minister, Didier Reynders, said he'll embark on a campaign to improve Belgium's image, amid alarmist headlines about the country in British, French, Italian, and German press.

Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, in an interview with several European dailies, out on Tuesday, praised Belgium’s handling of the crisis.

“Charles Michel [the Belgian PM] took a decision in the face of a threat. It’s not governments, but terrorist acts, which cause psychosis, anxiety,” he said.

He declined to criticise Belgian intelligence for failing to stop the Paris attacks, citing “exemplary cooperation” with French services.

He also said the war against terrorism will be “long. It will last for months, years.”

EU tables anti-foreign fighters laws

The EU Commission has proposed two pieces of legislation to criminalize travelling and training for terrorist purposes and prevent arms sales to terrorists and crime gangs.

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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