Belgian paratroopers fanned out Saturday to guard possible terror targets across the country, including some buildings within the Jewish quarter of the port city of Antwerp, amid heightened security threat.
It was the first time in 30 years that authorities used troops to reinforce police in Belgium’s cities, and came a day after anti-terror raids netted dozens of suspects across Western Europe.
Belgium has increased its terror warning to 3, the second-highest, following the anti-terror raids of Thursday which left two suspects dead amid fears they had been planning imminent attacks on police and their offices.
French, German, Belgian and Irish police had at least 30 suspects behind bars on Friday and in Brussels, authorities said a dozen searches led to the seizure of four Kalashnikov assault rifles, hand guns and explosives. Several police uniforms were also found, which Belgian authorities said suggested the plotters had intended to masquerade as police officers.
The seizures followed an anti-terrorism sweep on Thursday in and around Brussels and the eastern industrial city of Verviers in which two suspects were killed in a firefight and a third wounded. Authorities said the follow-up operation netted several returnees from Islamic holy war in Syria.
Authorities have said there was no apparent link between the foiled plots in Belgium and last week’s terror attacks in Paris on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told VTM network Saturday that “we hope the worst has been avoided but we need to prepare for the most difficult to come.”
Some 150 paratroopers were watching synagogues in Antwerp, the Jewish Museum in Brussels and other selected building across the nations. The figure could be double in the coming days until the situation will be reviewed next week.
Not everyone thought this would calm nerves. “You know, when people see the soldiers on streets they will get scared. That could make more problems than solutions,” said student Greg Verhoeven in Antwerp.
Britain’s police chiefs, meanwhile, increased patrols at Jewish sites and were studying ways to increase protection of police officers and the Jewish community after the terrorist attacks in Paris. According to The Guardian, the terror threat against British police was raised to severe, the country’s highest, and chiefs weighed issuing additional Tasers to officers.
Chief counter-terror officer Mark Rowley said the attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris and anti-Semitic rhetoric from extremists has led to “heightened concern” for the Jewish population in Britain.
He said police are meeting with Jewish community leaders to discuss security plans, and are adding extra patrols. Rowley also said the “deliberate targeting” of police in recent terrorist attacks has raised fears about the safety of serving officers.
A recent plot to attack police in London was scuttled, and police have been singled out for attacks in other countries.
Charlie Hebdo terrorist buried
The heightened security around Jewish sites in Belgium and Britain came as officials in the French city of Reims said one of the terrorists responsible for the deadly attacks last week that killed 17 people was buried in the eastern French city over their objections and despite concerns that the grave could become a shrine for extremists.
Said Kouachi, the elder of the two brothers who together gunned down 12 people Jan. 7 in their attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, was buried at the demand of the French government, Reims city officials said in a statement Saturday.
“Given the risk of disturbance of the peace and in order to quickly turn the page of this tragic episode, it was decided to do the burial quickly,” the city said.
Earlier in the week Reims Mayor Arnaud Robinet said he’d “categorically refuse” a request by Kouachi’s family to bury him in Reims, where he lived before police killed him and his brother Jan. 9. “I don’t want a grave that serves to attract fanatics. I don’t want a place that promotes hate,” Robinet said in an interview on France Info radio Thursday.
Speaking Saturday on BFM TV, Robinet said he’d been forced to allow the burial by the government, which enforced a French law that grants a right to be buried in the town of last residence.
“He was buried last night, in the most discrete, anonymous way possible,” Robinet said in an interview on French television channel BFM TV. Robinet said he didn’t know where Kouachi was buried in the cemetery, which he didn’t identify.
Antoine Flasaquier, a lawyer for Kouachi’s widow, said the burial took place overnight “in the greatest discretion and dignity.” Flasaquier said the widow did not attend the burial for fear she’d be followed by reporters and give away the location of the grave.
Two other terrorists killed in shootouts with police following last week’s attacks await burial. Cherif Kouachi will be buried in his hometown of Gennevilliers, outside Paris. City officials there say they wanted to avoid “all useless and indecent polemic” over the burial and said Kouachi would be buried in an anonymous grave “to avoid all risk of disturbance to the peace and to preserve the town’s tranquility.”
The debate over where to bury the terrorists echoed the one nearly three years ago over the burial of Mohamed Merah, who killed three Jewish schoolchildren, a rabbi and three paratroopers in Toulouse in 2012. Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened to allow the burial over the objections of Toulouse’s mayor.
The Kouachis were killed by French counter-terrorism police Jan. 9, two days after they killed 12 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Cherif Kouachi is to be buried in Gennevilliers, a suburb of Paris where he lived, the city said in a statement Friday.
There has been no word of plans for burying Amedy Coulibaly, who killed five people, including four Jewish hostages at a kosher market, in Paris before he was killed by police Jan. 9.