Belgian security forces killed two terror suspects in a fierce shootout in the eastern city of Verviers on Thursday and arrested another, foiling a major attack against police buildings, authorities said.
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Security forces found four AK-47s and explosives, as well as police uniforms, in the alleged terrorists' apartment, Belgian media reported.
Preliminary intelligence reports said the cell intended to launch an attack in the near future, against targets linked to the Belgian police. It is believed that the cell intended to dress as police officers in order to carry out the attack.
Belgian news outlets reporting police activity in several locals across Belgium including near major EU institutions in Brussels.
The suspects immediately opened fire on police when they closed in on them near the city's train station, Magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said in Brussels. He said there was no link at this stage to the Paris attacks, and that the raid is the result of an investigation that has been underway for a few weeks.
"These were extremely well-armed men," with automatic weapons, Van der Sypt said. Police buildings were the target, and an attack had been expected in hours or days, he said.
There was an intense firefight for several minutes on an upper level of a building in Verviers where the raid took place. The building where the raid took place is multistory and appears to be residential.
"We still expect a number of arrests," he said. No police were wounded or killed in the firefight, which occurred at the height of rush hour in a crowded neighborhood.
The magistrate said more anti-terrorist raids were underway in the Brussels region and Verviers, adding that Belgium's terror alert level was raised to its second-highest level. The operation was part of an investigation into extremists returning from Syria, authorities said.
Verviers is a former industrial town with a large immigrant population about 125 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of the capital, Brussels.
Witnesses speaking on Belgium's RTBF radio described a series of explosions followed by rapid fire at the center of Verviers, near a bakery and in the neighborhood of the train station. Video posted online of what appeared to be the raid showed a dark view of a building amid blasts, gunshots and sirens, and a fire with smoke billowing up.
Earlier Thursday, Belgian authorities said they are looking into possible links between a man they arrested in the southern city of Charleroi for illegal trade in weapons and Amedy Coulibaly, who prosecutors say killed four people in a Paris kosher market last week.
The man arrested in Belgium "claims that he wanted to buy a car from the wife of Coulibaly," said federal prosecutor's spokesman, Eric Van der Sypt. "At this moment this is the only link between what happened in Paris." Van der Sypt said that "of course, naturally" we are continuing the investigation.
At first the man came to police himself claiming there had been contact with Coulibaly's common law wife regarding the car, but he was arrested following a search on his premises when enough indications of illegal weapons trade were found.
Van der Sypt stressed there was no established weapons link with the Paris attack at this moment.
Several countries are now involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the two other gunmen in the French attacks.
Meanwhile in Germany, police arrested a suspected supporter of the insurgent group Islamic State (IS) who was recently in Syria and raided his apartment in the state of Lower Saxony, federal prosecutors said on Thursday.
The 26-year-old suspect, who has German and Tunisian citizenship, was suspected of having joined Islamic State during a stay in Syria from May to August last year, the federal prosecutor general said in a statement.
The man is accused of receiving combat training in Syria to join Islamic fighters and of retrieving the wounded during a military offensive, the prosecutors said.
There were no indications, however, that the suspect, identified as Ayub B., had concrete plans for an attack, the statement read.
Like other west European countries, Germany is struggling to stop the radicalization of young Muslims, some of whom want to become jihadist insurgents in Syria or Iraq. Officials also worry that they might return to plot attacks on home soil.
German intelligence authorities estimate that at least 550 people have left Germany for Syria and around 180 have returned. Many are under criminal investigation.
Last week's deadly attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris that killed 17 people has fueled fears of assaults on similar targets in other European countries.