Report From Belgium

16 Arrested in Brussels Raids, but Paris Attacker Still at Large

After raids in city center, Salah Abdeslam evades capture. Throughout the day residents told remain indoors and to stay away from windows; schools and public transportation will be closed on Monday as well.

A Belgian soldier stands guard over the Grand Place of Brussels as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 22, 2015.

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. 

Belgian security forces were patrolling several neighborhoods in Brussels throughout the say Sunday and notified citizens to keep away, following the prime minister's announcement that Brussels will be facing at least one more day under a special state of emergency. The city remained on its highest state of alert.

Brussels extends state of emergency Reuters

Citing a "serious and imminent" threat, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced that schools and universities in Brussels will be closed Monday, with the subway remaining shut down, preventing a return to normal in the city that is also home to the European Union's main institutions.

According to unconfirmed reports, a central street in the capital was on lockdown due to a terrorist threat. Eyewitnesses in nearby restaurants told RTL that police instructed patrons to finish their dinners and wait for a sign to vacate the premises. Residents in the street reported that police told them to stay away from the windows.  

Belgian police reportedly asked locals and the media not to tweet about the operation in central Brussels.

The threat, Prime Minister Charles Michel said, remains clear and immediate, based on the Belgian government's intelligence information. Although the state of alert was in effect over the weekend in the city - which is not only the Belgian capital but also the seat of the European Union and headquarters city of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO - it will now be affecting the work week for businesses and offices throughout the capital, including the international organizations that have operations here.

The public is being asked to continue to refrain from gathering in crowds. Cultural events and conferences will be limited to the extent possible. The city's metro system, which was halted over the weekend, will remain idle on Monday, at least until the afternoon, when the situation will be reassessed. All of the city's schools and kindergartens will also be closed, in the morning at least.

This week saw one of the strangest Sundays ever in Brussels' modern history. Weekend markets, which are normally a major draw for shoppers, were shut down completely. The Marolles flea market, which is generally a popular Sunday attraction, was empty of visitors. This week there was an armored vehicle along with a contingent of soldiers on the large square that usually plays host to the hundreds of stands where antiques and a range of used items are on offer at bargain prices. The soldiers were stamping their feet in an effort to stay warm in the near freezing temperatures.

Many restaurants and cafes in the city that normally draw crowds on weekends were shuttered and those that decided to open had rather sparse clientele. Businesses also reported a large number of reservation and event cancellations.

The high state of tension that Brussels residents have faced since early Saturday was accompanied by warnings over suspicious objects and vehicles, and police dispatched to sites where in some instances they cleared entire buildings to conduct thorough sweeps of the premises. Unlike the metro, bus service was not halted, but local media reported that some bus drivers refused to report to work out of fear for their own safety.

Uncertainty over how things would be functioning in the coming days in the city has spawned tentative preparations to accommodate to a new situation. At least one major bank, for example, made plans to have some of its employees work from home due to the difficulties they might face getting to work.

In the end, it was decided not to open schools on Monday morning, but before the decision was announced, media outlets featured the comments of some parents who deliberated over whether they should send their children to school if the state of alert was lowered.

A short tour of the Gare du Midi, Brussels' central train station, where passengers on the high-speed Thalys trains to and from Paris arrive and depart, also revealed a major change. There were not a lot of passengers, but those who were riding the line attracted unusual scrutiny from security forces.

In normal times, access to the train platforms is totally open (other than on trains bound for London, which is outside the border-free European Schengen area). Passengers' tickets are usually printed with a rather strange request for those who are not used to it, asking that they arrive at least two minutes prior to their train's departure time. In the current period, however, access to the international platforms has been limited to actual passengers. They are asked to present identification before boarding, and those who arouse suspicion are asked to have their belongings searched, a sight that had been all but forgotten here.

Senior Belgian politicians have been dispatched to appear on television to quell concerns that had begun to surface in interviews on the street and comments in the printed press over whether the government had overreacted to the situation. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, Interior Minister Jan Jambon and other officials have assured members of the public that the threat is real and that it was not possible to take chances under the circumstances.

During the first day of the alert on Saturday, officials made attempts to keep certain detailed information confidential, but then various leaks appeared in the Brussels press, including reports that ten armed terrorists were about to carry out attacks at several locations in the city. Justice Minister Koen Geens hinted that officials know who some of them are.

The mayor of the Brussels suburb of Schaerbeek, Bernard Clerfayt, who was privy to confidential information provided at a meeting of area mayors in advance of the imposition of the state of alert, told Belgian state radio that "there are two terrorists here and they have a bomb."

Government spokespeople stressed that the hunt for Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, who is thought to be the only terrorist suspect left alive from the wave of terrorist attacks in Paris a week ago Friday, was being handled separately from the threats that prompted the state of alert in Brussels beginning early Saturday, despite the danger that Abdeslam is thought to pose. At the same time, associates of Abdeslam seemed to be paving the way for him to give himself up. His brother Mohammed appeared on state broadcaster RTBF saying the following: "Salah is a very intelligent person. I am convinced that at the last moment he had regrets and decided not to go all the way, not to take part in the terrorist attacks and fled."
 
Ahmed issued a plea to his brother to give himself up. "I would prefer to see him in prison and not in a cemetery." And with regard to another brother, Ibrahim, who blew himself up at a café on Boulevard Voltaire in Paris a week ago Friday, Ahmed said: "The family doesn't understand him. I saw Salah and Ibrahim two days before the terrorist attacks. They didn't say a thing to me," he said. "Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary."