Brussels on lockdown over threat of ‘imminent’ attack
BRUSSELS – Brussels shut its metro system as a terror alert was raised to its highest level Saturday, with a gunman still on the run after the Paris attacks which have sent jitters through Europe.
Citizens of the Belgian capital were urged to avoid crowded areas due to reports of an “imminent threat” as Belgium-based jihadists have been increasingly linked to the devastating attacks in Paris.
Investigators are working around the clock to track Salah Abdeslam, one of the gunmen who is still on the loose after a coordinated wave of attacks on Parisian nightspots that left 130 dead.
The carnage has put all of Europe on edge as it emerged dangerous jihadists slipped between countries unnoticed, prompting the EU to rush through reforms to tighten border checks in its cherished passport-free Schengen zone.
Turkey has detained a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin, Ahmet Dahmani, 26, who is believed to have helped choose the sites for the Paris attacks, the Dogan news agency reported on Saturday.
The United Nations Security Council on Friday authorised nations to “take all necessary measures” to fight Islamic State jihadists and other extremist groups after a wave of terror attacks across the world that has left hundreds dead in recent weeks.
The UN resolution came as jihadist gunmen with an Al-Qaeda branch besieged a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killing 21 people.
Mali was struck a week after Paris and Beirut — where 44 where killed in IS bombings — and three weeks after IS downed a Russian plane killing 224 people.
In grieving Paris, citizens defiantly poured into the streets and onto cafe terraces Friday night to mark one week since the carnage with a noisy minute of non-silence as urged by several artists in the country.
Outside La Belle Equipe restaurant where 18 were gunned down, a crowd stood under a light rain around a heap of flowers and candles singing the Marseillaise anthem before whooping and yelling at the top of their voices at 9:20pm (2020 GMT), when the attacks started.
Benoit Seblain, drinking a beer at a cafe not far from the Bataclan where 89 people were massacred, admitted he was “a bit afraid.”
“But we told ourselves we have to try and live like we did before,” he said.
The country has been shaken to its core by a dramatic week which began with the attacks and saw a violent shootout between police and jihadists holed up in a Paris apartment.
Suspected attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in the police assault along with his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen and an unidentified suicide bomber.
Abaaoud was a notorious Belgian jihadist thought to be fighting in Syria and his presence in Europe raised troubling questions about a breakdown in intelligence and border security.
Prosecutors said Friday that two of the three men who blew themselves up near the Stade de France stadium — the first of the wave of attacks — may have entered Europe through Greece, posing as refugees fleeing the Syrian war.
Seven attackers were killed or blew themselves up during their assault on Paris.
Another, Salah Abdeslam, is believed to have fled to Belgium and a huge manhunt is underway to find him.
His brother Brahim blew himself up outside a Paris bar.
Both grew up in the poor Molenbeek district of Brussels, described as an extremist hotbed, before going to join the Islamic State group in Syria.
Belgium’s OCAM national crisis centre raised its alert level to 4 early Saturday, “signifying a very serious threat for the Brussels region”.
The alert remains at level 3 for the rest of the country.
The centre urged citizens to avoid crowded areas such as concerts and transport hubs in Belgium’s capital, which is also home to the EU and NATO headquarters, and recommended that authorities in the Brussels region “consider cancelling major events” including scrapping first and second division football matches this weekend.
The European Union agreed Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year.
The 26-nation Schengen area is a passport-free zone, and normally only non-EU nationals have their details checked against a database for terrorism and crime when they enter, but those checks will now be extended to EU citizens.
The planned changes are a further blow to Schengen as a pillar of European unity and freedom after an unprecedented influx of migrants has caused Germany and other member states to temporarily reintroduce internal border controls.