2 killed as Belgium moves to thwart ‘large-scale’ attacks
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2 killed as Belgium moves to thwart ‘large-scale’ attacks

Police launch series of raids after jihadis returning from Syria raise red flag; Jewish schools cancel classes

Journalists and local residents stand near police vehicles as police set a large security perimeter in the city center of Verviers on January 15, 2015, during a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation. (Photo credit: AFP/ BRUNO FAHY)
Journalists and local residents stand near police vehicles as police set a large security perimeter in the city center of Verviers on January 15, 2015, during a "jihadist-related" anti-terrorism operation. (Photo credit: AFP/ BRUNO FAHY)

BRUSSELS — Police on Thursday shot dead two suspects in eastern Belgium as they were about to launch “large-scale” attacks in the country after returning from Syria, prosecutors said.

They said a third suspect was arrested in the eastern town of Verviers and that the police had carried about 10 raids in all, including in the capital Brussels, after surveillance suggested an attack was imminent.

Belgian officials said that there was no known link at this stage between the Belgium plot and a series of deadly attacks in Paris last week.

The prosecutor’s office said operations were still under way after 00:30 Friday and arrests were still expected.

Leaders of the country’s Jewish community decided to cancel classes and close schools Friday in Antwerp and Brussels after they were informed that they were potential targets, according to the website Joods Actueel.

The incident comes as Europe is on high alert after 17 people were killed in Islamist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, a policewoman and a Jewish supermarket in Paris last week.

“An operation is under way,” a source in the mayor’s office told AFP without giving further details.

Another official said separately that the incident in Verviers, which is close to the German border some 125 kilometers (70 miles) from Brussels, was “jihadist-related.”

In May 2014, four people were shot dead in a suspected Islamist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who had previously been in Syria, has been charged with murder.

The men targeted in Verviers were under surveillance having returning from Syria a week ago, Belgian media reported.

Intelligence indicated they were planning an attack, the reports said.

Prosecutors were due to give a press conference at 1900 GMT.

Several reports said a series of other anti-terror raids were under way across Belgium, including in the capital Brussels, where the European Union is headquartered.

Residents reported gunfire and blasts in the raid on a former bakery in central Verviers.

“I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots,” one local resident told RTBF. “For the moment, I cannot tell you any more because I don’t dare go out to see what is happening.”

Another local resident said “machine guns were firing for about 10 minutes.”

A third witness said he saw two young men apparently of North African origin “dressed all in black carrying a bag of the same color,” adding that the pair looked terrified.

Three Islamic State militants threatened attacks on Belgium in a video broadcast on Wednesday, the Belga news agency reported.

Paris gunman probe

Belgian investigators said earlier Thursday they were probing whether an arms dealer sold weapons used in the Paris attacks, after confirming supermarket gunman Amedy Coulibaly sold the man a car belonging to his partner Hayat Boumeddiene.

There was no immediate confirmation of any link between the Coulibaly investigation and Thursday’s raid.

The man, Neetin Karasular, from the airport city of Charleroi in French-speaking southern Belgium, is in detention on suspicion of a possible link to the weapons used in the Paris attacks.

Police block Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two people were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation (photo credit: AFP/JOHN THYS)
Police block Colline street in Verviers, eastern Belgium, on January 15, 2015, after two people were reportedly killed during an anti-terrorist operation (photo credit: AFP/JOHN THYS)

“The issue of weapons is under investigation,” prosecutors’ office spokesman Eric Van der Sijpt told AFP, adding that Karasular was under suspicion for “arms trafficking.”

Belgian prosecutors are working with French authorities to establish any “possible link” to last week’s Paris attacks.

Coulibaly, who was killed by police on Friday, is also believed to have shot dead a policewoman in another Paris attack.

Van der Sijpt added that the Belgian suspect “bought the car belonging to Coulibaly’s wife.”

Karasular handed himself into police on Tuesday, saying he had been in contact with Coulibaly in recent months and had tried to “swindle” the Frenchman over the car deal, but was scared after the Paris attacks.

Investigators searched his house and found documents proving the sale of the vehicle and papers showing negotiations with Coulibaly about arms and ammunition, including a Tokarev pistol of the sort used by the Frenchman during the supermarket attack, Belga said.

Karasular will appear before a magistrate in Charleroi on Monday who will decide whether he will remain in custody.

Spain meanwhile opened an investigation Thursday into Coulibaly and Boumeddiene’s visit to Madrid shortly before the attacks.

Turkish authorities say Boumeddiene crossed into Syria on January 8 from Turkey. She had arrived in Istanbul on a flight from Madrid before the Paris attacks took place.

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