Yves Herman / Reuters

16 detained in overnight raids in Belgium; Brussels remains on high alert

Paris fugitive Salah Abdeslam was not among those detained during 22 overnight raids, Belgian authorities said Monday

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Belgian prosecutors announced early Monday that they have detained 16 people in raids linked to possible attacks in Belgium but said Paris fugitive Salah Abdeslam was not among them.

The spokesman for the federal prosecutor, Eric Van Der Sypt, said that "no firearms or explosives were discovered," in the 22 raids — 16 in Brussels and the three in Charleroi in the country's south. At least one of the raids was conducted in Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood that has long provided a haven for aspiring and returning foreign fighters. 

"We have to stress that no firearms or explosives were discovered ... during the raids," Van Der Sypt said." Certain elements in the investigation made Sunday's intervention necessary. The investigation will in any case be relentlessly continued."

Brussels will remain at the highest threat level on Monday.

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The people who were detained will appear before a judge later Monday to decide if they should be held further, according to the prosecutor, who added their connection to the Paris attacks, if any, has yet to be determined.

The announcement of the arrests came after a tense night. During one of the 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, the spokesman  told a brief news conference. He did not answer questions. 

Streets were deserted Sunday evening while police conducted one of the largest operations in several districts of Brussels, including Molenbeek and Jette, where at least three of the Paris attackers grew up. Abdeslam, however, remains at large, said Van Der Sypt. 

The raids began before 9 p.m. Sunday night because Belgian law forbids initiating searches between the hours of 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. Because the raids began before before the deadline, operations were allowed to continue. The law restricting the hours of searches is due to change as Prime Minister Charles Michel Thursday announced 18 measures aimed at boosting security interventions in response to the terror risk.

On Sunday afternoon, Michel said that Brussels will remain at the highest threat level Monday because of a "serious and imminent" threat of coordinated, multiple attacks.

Flemish schools in the Belgian capital will be closed Monday and employees at major banks and other companies were asked to work from home. The Schuman area, home to the European Union, will also remain closed. The city's subway system will remain closed.

"What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could also possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations," Michel told a press conference in Brussels after chairing a meeting of Belgium's National Security Council.

While Brussels was kept on the highest of four alert levels, the rest of the country remains on a Level 3 alert, meaning an attack is "possible and likely."

"Nobody is pleased with such a situation. Neither are we. But we have to take our responsibility," Michel said.

Police asked media to refrain from posting about the raids on social media. Belgians responded with humor and tweeted pictures of cats instead, with the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown soon trending worldwide. 

“I’ve rarely been so proud to be Belgian,” one tweeted, adding “fighting terror with surrealism."

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks that left 130 people dead.

Two of the Paris attackers, Brahim Abdeslam and Bilal Hadfi, had been living in Belgium. Fugitive suspect Salah Abdeslam, Brahim's 26 year-old brother, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks, authorities said.

Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, was quoted by broadcaster RTBF as saying there were "two terrorists" in the Brussels area ready to carry out violence.

Mohamed Abdeslam, the brother of Brahim and Salah, has urged Salah in an interview on RTBF television to give himself up, adding that he believed Salah was still alive because he had had a last-minute change of heart while in Paris.

A city closed

Brussels, the capital of the European Union, effectively shut down Saturday due to the threat level — bars and restaurants were asked to close, and museums and shopping malls as well as subway stations were shuttered following the terror alert.

At least five military troops stood guard at the entrance of the Nieuwstraat, normally a bustling avenue at this time of year, when thousands flock to the city to do Christmas shopping or enjoy a Saturday night out at nearby restaurants.

A sign advertising Sinterklaas, a local precursor to Santa Claus, stood behind a gate barring entry to a shop. Barely anyone except tourists and journalists walked the street as many residents heeded the government’s advice to avoid crowded places. 

“We’re very scared,” a resident said, walking past a military truck parked in the street. “What’s particularly worrying is that everyone is a target,” he added.

A tourist from Spain said she thought no one was safe anywhere. In Madrid in 2004, an assault on the metro killed 191 people, the deadliest attack in Europe since a Pan Am flight was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

The Schuman area of Brussels, home to the European Union headquarters, was nearly empty Saturday, save for a handful of passersby and military troops on guard. The neighborhood's subway station was closed, and the Barlaymont building, which houses the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body, stood dark in the background.

In Vilvoorde, a town on the outskirts of Brussels not bound by the threat alert but known for its high concentration of youth who left for Syria, Mayor Hans Bonte cancelled local Sinterklaas celebrations as well as a soccer game.

An arrest and a peace march

In Turkey, officials detained a 26-year-old Belgian national of Moroccan origin, who was believed to have been in contact with the Paris attackers. Ahmet Dahmani was detained in the coastal city of Antalya along with two other suspected Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters. A senior Turkish government official said Dahmani was believed to have been in contact with the Paris attackers, though the official did not say when. Dahmani had arrived in Turkey on Nov. 14 from Amsterdam, and the three were preparing to cross into Syria, the official said.

Government officials in Belgium and France would not immediately comment on Dahmani's arrest.

Concerns about Europe's porous borders prompted interior and justice ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday to promise tightened controls to make it easier to track the movements of fighters with European passports traveling to and from war zones in Syria.

Paris prosecutors said Friday that they had determined through fingerprint checks that two of the seven attackers who died in the bloodshed Nov. 13 had entered Europe through Greece, an entry point for many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

The five other attackers who died had links to France and Belgium. One of the seven dead has not been identified, while a manhunt is underway for Abdeslam.

In France on Saturday, regional authorities say some 10,000 people marched in the southwestern French city of Toulouse in a rally "for civil rights and peace."

The largely silent event was held to commemorate the victims of last week's attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. Participants held banners condemning the "barbarism" of the attacks and warning against holding all Muslims responsible for the violence.

With wire services




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