More counterterrorism operations were reportedly underway in Belgium late Thursday, hours after police killed at least two in raids aimed at jihadists returning from Syria who were planning to launch a “Belgian Charlie Hebdo” attack, authorities said.
Belgian news site L’Avenir, as well as Le Soir and France24, reported that the government prosecutor’s office said a dozen operations have been launched against suspects across Belgium, in Verviers, Brussels and Hal-Vilvoorde. Some of those targeted in the raids are known to have returned recently from Syria.
The Belgian news site reported that, based on phone intercepts in the homes and cars of the three individuals involved in a shootout in Verviers, authorities believed the three were in the process of carrying out imminent attacks inside Belgium. A shootout between the three and police has left two of the suspected terrorists dead and another wounded.
The French daily Le Soir is reporting that the investigations were launched against the Verviers suspects at least two weeks ago after they returned from Syria where they were thought to be involved in the fighting there.
The raids earlier Thursday included one on an apartment above a bakery in the eastern city of Verviers, authorities said. They said no officers were injured and that the suspects opened fire on them as the swooped in. Authorities said the terror cell had ties to ISIS and was planning a major attack.
“We’ve averted a Belgian Charlie Hebdo,” an unidentified police officer told La Meuse.
It was not immediately known if the suspects in Belgium had direct links to the terror cell that carried out last week’s attacks in Paris. But much of Europe is deeply concerned about homegrown jihadists sympatizers – and passport holders – who are returning battle-hardened from Iraq and Syria. Thursday’s raids came as a man suspected of selling guns used in last week’s terror attacks in France was being detained in another part of the country.
Magistrate Eric Van der Sypt told reporters in Brussels that the suspects were on the verge of committing a major terrorist attack. He said at an emergency news conference that Belgium’s terror alert level was raised to its second highest level. The raids were part of an investigation into extremists returning from Syria.
The public prosecutor’s office confirmed the deaths of two suspects and arrests of “several” more. Federal prosecutors were quoted as saying there had been a police operation aimed at jihadists who have returned from the Middle East to the city of 55,000, some 70 miles from Brussels.
Explosions and gunfire were apparently heard near the station, according to Belgium’s public broadcaster RTBF. The Belga news agency said there were several casualties and police activity was continuing. Another official told the agency it was “jihadist-related” and a news conference was scheduled for 8 p.m. local time.
Earlier, Reuters reported that Belgian authorities detained a man for arms dealing and are investigating whether he supplied one of the Islamist gunmen involved in the attacks in Paris, including a raid on the headquarters of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a separate siege at a Jewish supermarket two days later. A total of 17 victims and three terrorists were killed in the events.
Belgian media reported that the suspect turned himself in in the southern city of Charleroi on Tuesday, saying he had been in touch with Amedy Coulibaly, the behind the supermarket attack.
According to the reports, the man said that he swindled Coulibaly in a car sale, but police later found evidence that the two were negotiating about the sale of ammunition for a 7.62 mm caliber firearm.
“The man is being held by the judge in Charleroi on suspicion of arms dealing,” a spokesman for Belgium’s federal prosecution said. “Further investigations will have to show whether there is a link with the events in Paris,” he added.
It was not known if the raid in Belgium was directly related to recent events in France, but the nations share a 385-mile border and are close culturally and politically.On Sunday, the offices of Belgian newspaper Le Soir, a French-language publication that published caricatures of Prophet Muhammad to show solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, were evacuated after a bomb threat. Also on Sunday, thousands marched through Brussels to show support for the French tabloid which was targeted by a pair of radicalized brothers because of its penchant for publishing images of Islam’s prophet.
A German tabloid that reprinted caricatures of Muhammad was firebombed on Sunday. But Charlie Hebdo came out with a new issue on Wednesday, with a caricature of Muhammad on the cover under the title “Tout est pardonne,” or “All is forgiven.”
—Courtesy of Fox News