Police shoot dead suspect in killing of 2 Swedish soccer fans on a Brussels street

Amid highest terror alert in capital, Belgian authorities say uncertain if alleged Tunisian extremist is the gunman; soccer fans were kept in stadium for 2 hours, match suspended

Police patrol as a van is towed from a shooting scene in the center of Brussels, Octoberr 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Carlson)
Police patrol as a van is towed from a shooting scene in the center of Brussels, Octoberr 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Mark Carlson)

BRUSSELS — Police in Belgium on Tuesday shot dead a suspected Tunisian extremist accused of killing two Swedish soccer fans in a brazen shooting on a Brussels street before disappearing into the night.

Hours after a manhunt began in the Belgian capital and after the capital’s terror alert was raised to the highest level, Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told broadcaster VRT: “We have the good news that we found the individual.” She said that the weapon believed to have been used in the shooting was recovered.

The federal prosecutor’s office was more cautious, saying in a text message to The Associated Press: “There are strong presumptions but no certainties” that the man was the shooter. He was shot by police in the Schaerbeek neighborhood where the rampage had taken place.

Amateur videos posted on social media of Monday’s attack showed a man wearing an orange fluorescent vest pull up on a scooter, take out a large weapon and open fire on passersby before chasing them into a building to gun them down.

“Last night, three people left for what was supposed to be a wonderful soccer party. Two of them lost their lives in a brutal terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a news conference just before dawn. “Their lives were cut short in full flight, cut down by extreme brutality.”

De Croo said his thoughts were with the victims’ families and that he had sent his condolences to the Swedish prime minister. Security has been beefed up in the capital, particularly around places linked to the Swedish community in the city.

“The attack that was launched yesterday was committed with total cowardice,” De Croo said.

Not far from the scene of the shooting, the Belgium-Sweden soccer match in the Belgian national stadium was suspended at halftime and the 35,000 fans were held inside as a precaution while the attacker was at large.

Supporters look through the fence as they wait to leave after suspension of the Euro 2024 group F qualifying soccer match between Belgium and Sweden at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Prosecutor Eric Van Duyse said “security measures were urgently taken to protect the Swedish supporters” in the stadium. More than two hours after the game was suspended, a message flashed on the big stadium screen saying, “Fans, you can leave the stadium calmly.” Stand after stand emptied onto streets filled with police as the search for the attacker continued.

“Frustrated, confused, scared. I think everyone was quite scared,” said Caroline Lochs, a fan from Antwerp.

De Croo said the assailant was a Tunisian man living illegally in Belgium who used a military weapon to kill the two Swedes and shoot a third, who is being treated for “severe injuries.”

Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw described how the suspect, a 45-year-old man who wasn’t identified, had posted a video online claiming to have killed three Swedish people.

The suspect is alleged to have said in the video that, for him, the Quran is “a red line for which he is ready to sacrifice himself.”

A bullet hole is seen in the window of a building at the scene of a suspected terror shooting in which two people were killed, in Brussels on October 16, 2023. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

Sweden raised its terror alert to the second-highest level in August after a series of public Quran burnings by an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden resulted in threats from Islamic terror groups.

Belgian prosecutors said overnight that nothing suggested the attack was linked to the latest war between Israel and Hamas following the Palestinian terror group’s brutal massacres that resulted in some 1,300 killed in Israel and at least 199 kidnapped, including babies, children and the elderly.

Police overnight raided a building in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek where the man was thought to be staying but did not find him. Sweden’s foreign ministry sent out a text message to subscribers in Belgium asking them “to be vigilant and to carefully listen to instructions from the Belgian authorities.”

According to Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, the suspect was denied asylum in 2019. He was known to police and had been suspected of involvement of human trafficking, living illegally in Belgium and of being a risk to state security.

Information provided to the Belgian authorities by an unidentified foreign government suggested that the man had been radicalized and intended to travel abroad to fight in a holy war. But the Belgian authorities were not able to establish this, so he was never listed as dangerous.

Belgian police officers from the forensic service at the scene of a suspected terror shooting in which two people were killed, in Brussels on October 16, 2023. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

The man was also suspected of threatening a person in an asylum center and a hearing on that incident had been due to take place on Tuesday, Van Quickenborne said.

Belgian Asylum State Secretary Nicole de Moor said the man disappeared after his asylum application was refused so the authorities were unable to locate him to organize his deportation.

A terror alert for Brussels was raised overnight to 4, the top of Belgium’s scale, indicating an extremely serious threat. It previously stood at 2, which means the threat was average. The alert level for the rest of the country was raised to 3.

De Croo said that Belgium would never submit to such attacks. “Moments like this are a heavy ordeal,” he told reporters, “but we are never going to let ourselves be intimidated by them.”

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