Belgian police arrest 16 in Brussels raids, fail to find Paris attacks key suspect

Police seal off streets around Brussels Grand Place amid fear for possibility of Paris-style attack.

By REUTERS
November 23, 2015 01:54
3 minute read.
Brussels' Grand Place

Belgian soldiers patrol Brussels' Grand Place on November 22, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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BRUSSELS - Belgian police arrested 16 people during operations following the November 13 Paris attacks but did not find Salah Abdeslam, the Brussels man who is suspected of playing a key role in France, the public prosecutor said early on Monday.

During one of 19 raids mounted across the capital Brussels, police fired on a vehicle but it was not clear if those inside were connected to those being sought, he told a brief news conference. Three houses were also searched in Charleroi, south of Brussels.

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Belgian armed police mounted raids across the country late on Sunday after the prime minister announced another day of lockdown in the capital for fear a new, Paris-style mass attack may be imminent.

Earlier in the evening, Prime Minister Charles Michel, speaking after a meeting of security chiefs called to review the threat status, said the capital's metro, universities and schools would be closed on Monday.
Belgian police mount raids in Brussels

For the rest of the country, a threat level of three on a four-tier scale would remain in place, Michel said. Brussels would remain at level four, meaning an attack was imminent, as it has been since Saturday.

"What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations," Michel told a news conference.

Armed police mounted searches in several parts of the capital on Sunday evening and cordoned off areas close to the main tourist attraction, the Renaissance Grand Place around the town hall. The public broadcaster said there were also raids near Liege in the east and Charleroi, south of Brussels.

Helicopters could be heard flying over the capital.

Possible targets were malls, shopping streets and public transport, Michel said, adding the government would boost police and army presence in the capital beyond already high levels.

He said a new evaluation of the situation would be made on Monday afternoon and everything was being done to return the city to normal as quickly as possible.

Commuters trying to get to work on Monday are expected to suffer delays as a result of the metro closure, though some companies had already indicated on Sunday they were ready for staff to work from home.

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks on Nov. 13 that left 130 people dead after links with Brussels emerged.

In France, investigators on Sunday extended into a fifth day the detention of a man arrested on Wednesday outside the building where the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks died in a raid. Police also released a picture of a man they said had blown himself up in the attacks and called for witnesses.

Two of the Paris suicide bombers, Brahim Abdeslam and Bilal Hadfi, had been living in Belgium. Fugitive suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, Brahim's 26-year-old brother, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks.

Earlier, Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Salah Abdeslam was not the only security threat.

"It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person," he told broadcaster VRT. "We're looking at more things, that's why we've put in place such a concentration of resources."

Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, was quoted by broadcaster RTBF as saying there were "two terrorists" in the Brussels area ready to carry out violence.

Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Brahim and Salah, urged Salah in an interview on RTBF television to give himself up, adding that he believed Salah was still alive because he had had a last-minute change of heart while in Paris.

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