BRUSSELS — A man with psychiatric problems who was carrying a fake suicide belt full of salt and cookies was arrested Tuesday after he triggered a major anti-terror operation at a Brussels shopping mall, prosecutors said.
Belgium remains on high alert after Islamic State-claimed bomb attacks in March left 32 people dead at the airport and at a metro station near European Union headquarters buildings.
Prosecutors said the 26-year-old man, identified only as J.B., admitted having made up his claim that he had been abducted and driven to the City 2 mall in central Brussels fitted with an explosives belt for remote detonation.
“After an initial inspection it was confirmed that it contained salt and [cookies]. Any threat of an explosion has been initially ruled out,” prosecutor’s spokesman Rym Kechiche said in a statement.
Police later searched the house of the suspect’s mother where they found the remains of the material used in the fake belt.
“The suspect gave a confession and admitted having fabricated his abduction,” Kechiche said.
The suspect also confessed to having taken at random a license plate number from a car in the street that he alleged was the one in which he was driven, he added.
The vehicle’s driver was released following questioning.
Prosecutors called for the man to undergo a psychiatric exam and be formally arrested on charges of falsely threatening an attack.
“J.B. is known to the authorities for various incidents, including some linked to psychiatric problems,” Kechiche said.
In one recent incident, he had contacted the police saying he had been urged to leave for Syria to join the Islamic State group.
Tuesday’s apparent threat had triggered a massive security operation involving soldiers and police sealing off the shopping center and a nearby Metro station.
Prime Minister Charles Michel called an emergency meeting of his security cabinet when the shopping mall alert was ongoing, reflecting the tensions in the country.
“The situation is for now under control. We remain vigilant,” Michel said after the meeting.
The terror alert level in Brussels remained at level three out of four, Belga news agency reported.
The City 2 mall had been mentioned in Belgian media in recent days as a possible target for attacks.
The incident comes only days after Belgian authorities charged three men with “attempted terrorist murder” after raiding dozens of homes linked to a reported threat to fans watching during a Euro 2016 football game.
The areas searched included neighborhoods in Brussels where November’s jihadist attackers in Paris and the Brussels suicide bombings had planned their assaults.
In proportion to its population, Belgium has the highest number of so-called foreign fighters in the EU who have traveled to wage jihad in Syria and Iraq, an estimated 500.