BRUSSELS – Residents of the Belgian capital were trying to figure out how to go about routine life on Monday morning as the unprecedented high state of alert over possible terrorist attacks entered its third day.
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The population of the paralyzed city is dealing with ongoing uncertainty and fear. “Yes, we are afraid” is the refrain heard over and over on call-in radio shows. Some listeners assert that terrorism has been the victor in shutting the city down even though, as of this writing, no attacks have been committed. For their part, Belgian politicians have been trying to assure the public that there is no other option, in light of the clear and present danger of such acts being perpetrated.
Brussel’s subway network was closed Monday for a third day, as were its shopping centers, public institutions and municipal agencies. Its education system from nursery school through university, affecting some 320,000 individuals, also joined the list.
Many parents remained home because they had no one to care for their children. In any event, however, a number of local companies – including major banks KBC and Belfius – decided to close their administrative offices and asked employees to work from home.
Beyond the metro system, many bus lines that were due to operate Monday were not running because, as a transportation system spokesman acknowledged, drivers were afraid to get behind the wheel in this city under threat.
Schedule disruptions were also experienced in the trains entering the city but, strange as it may sound in the midst of the security emergency, that situation was actually the result of labor sanctions imposed by workers in Wallonia (the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium), in protest of government economic policies.
Cab companies, on the other hand, rallied forces and announced that they would give priority to passengers with disabilities and to cases of emergency. Some hospitals cancelled all outpatient clinic appointments and limited visits to patients, to make it easier to deal with potential emergencies.
The European Union, which is based in this city, cancelled a number of conferences, as did other international organizations and private-sector companies. Local hotels reported drastic declines in business over the weekend.
Prime suspect at large
Between Sunday night and early Monday morning, security forces conducted raids at 22 locations and arrested 16 suspects, without succeeding to nab the prime suspect, Belgian Salah Abdeslam. He is thought to be the eighth and only surviving terrorist among the group that carried out the wave of attacks in Paris 10 days ago.
The fact that Abdelslam was still at large was confirmed Monday morning by the federal prosecutor’s office, while other government sources said he undoubtedly had undoubtedly received support and help in finding a hiding place.
There was one violent incident overnight in Molenbeek, the heavily Muslim Brussels suburb that has produced a number of Islamic terrorists. As police officers conducted a search of a local bar, a motorist tried to run several of them over. Police opened fire and the motorist sped away but was captured later, and found to be wounded. Although he was arrested, no further details about him were released.
It has become increasingly difficult for local media to differentiate between solid news and rumor during the past few days. In the course of the overnight police operations, the police asked Belgian media outlets not to report on the movements of security personnel. On Monday morning, Interior Minister Jan Jambon had praise for how the media had complied with the restrictions.
A similar call was directed to members of the public, who had begun posting photographs and reports about law-enforcement operations on social media. Many people decided instead to upload pictures of cats in various contexts, under news headlines in their posts.