Brussels on Partial Lockdown Amid 'Imminent' Paris-like Terror Threat

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Soldiers from the Belgian army patrol in the picturesque Grand Place in Brussels on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015.
Soldiers from the Belgian army patrol in the picturesque Grand Place in Brussels on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Credit: AP

BRUSSELS - Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announced that the country raised the alert status for its capital Brussels to the highest level on Saturday, citing "precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris." The last time the city was put on maximum alert was during a 2014 attack Jewish Museum in Brussels.

Michel said the fear was that "several individuals with arms and explosives could launch an attack ... perhaps even in several places." Michel added, "We urge the public not to give in to panic, to stay calm. We have taken the measures that are necessary."

Belgian police conducting searches for possible terror suspects in Brussels' Molenbeek district, where the Abdeslam brothers grew up.Credit: Reuters

The move came week after the Paris attacks carried out by Islamic State militant and after local authorities moved Saturday morning to shut down the metro and warned the public to avoid crowds because of a "serious and imminent" threat of an attack.

"The advice for the population is to avoid places where a lot of people come together like shopping centers, concerts, events or public transport stations wherever possible," a spokesman for the government's crisis center said.
He declined to say what specifically prompted the new alert. 

A statement on the center's website said it had recommended closing the underground rail network until Sunday and the municipal transport authority tweeted that stations on the four main metro lines were closed "by order of the police".

Meanwhile, Belgian police were reportedly carrying a fresh raid in Molenbeek, a neighborhood some have a labeled a terrorist hotbed. According to a report in La Capital, several weapons were discovered during the search of the home of one of three people arrested in Belgium in connection with the Paris attacks.

In a written statement released Saturday, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's office says said no explosives or suicide bomb belt had been found. It said additional details would not be made public.

Meanwhile, a new potential link emerged Saturday in Turkey, where authorities said they detained a 26-year-old Belgian suspected of connections to Islamic extremists — and possibly to the Paris attacks.

Residents of the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek take part in a memorial gathering to honour the victims of the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters

In Turkey, authorities detained three suspected Islamic State militants, including a 26-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent.

The state-run Anadolu Agency said Saturday that the two Syrians and the Belgian national — identified as Ahmet D. — were detained near the Turkish coastal city of Antalya. The private Dogan news agency identified the Belgian as Ahmet Dahmani and said he is suspected of having explored areas in Paris that were targeted in the attacks.

A Paris police official said Saturday that he had no information about Dahmani or his possible visit to the attack sites. The Paris prosecutor's office said it had no information to communicate about Dahmani.

Belgium, and its capital in particular, have been at the center of investigations into the Paris attacks - which included suicide bombers targeting a France-Germany soccer match - after the links to Brussels emerged. Three people detained in Brussels are facing terrorism charges. 

French authorities have said the attacks were planned in Brussels by a local man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, who fought for Islamic State in Syria and was killed in the siege of an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis on Wednesday. 

Salah Abdeslam, who was from the same neighborhood and is said by officials to have known Abaaoud in prison, was pulled over three times by French police but not arrested as he was driven back to Brussels early last Saturday by two of the men now in custody. As well as Abdeslam's brother, a second man from Brussels, Bilal Hadfi, was also among the Paris suicide bombers. 

The crisis centre spokesman declined to say what had led to the status change because investigations were proceeding. 

"We cannot give more information... The work of federal prosecutors is still going on," he said, adding the government was assessing what extra security measures to take. Soldiers are already on guard in certain parts of Brussels, including at the institutions of the European Union headquartered in the city. 
Brussels is also home to the headquarters of NATO. 

The last time any part of the country was put on maximum alert was in May 2014 when a gunman shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. At that time, Jewish schools, synagogues and other institutions were put on level four.

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