Belgian Police Uncover New Year's Terrorist Plot, Arrest Two Suspects

Police officers on patrol at Midi train station in Brussels, Belgium, 21 Nov. 2015. Photo: Stephanie Lecocq / EPA

BRUSSELS — Two people have been arrested after Belgian investigators uncovered plans for terrorist attacks that would target landmarks in the capital Brussels during New Year's festivities, prosecutors said Tuesday.

A series of police searches carried out on Sunday and Monday in Brussels, the Flemish Brabant region and near the eastern city of Liege brought to light "serious threats of attacks that would target several emblematic sites of Brussels and would be perpetrated during the year-end celebrations," the prosecutors said in a statement.

Police forces would also be targeted, notably at a station near the capital's Grand Place, local media reported. The central square, one of Brussels' top tourist attractions, is among the sites where people are expected to gather Thursday to mark New Year's Eve.

It was not clear Tuesday if the celebrations planned in the city centre would be allowed to proceed. Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur plans to decide on Wednesday evening, the newspaper Le Soir reported.

"I do not want to decide too quickly to cancel, for people to say afterwards that I should not have done it. And I do not want to add to the hysteria among the population," Mayeur told the daily.

Brussels had already been put on maximum security alert for nearly a week last month, following deadly terrorist attacks in Paris.

"If we cancel, we will have a lot of people in the streets anyway. It will be more complicated to manage," Mayeur added.

Belgium's coordinating unit for threat analysis, OCAM, said it was maintaining the threat level across the country at 3 – signalling a serious, but not imminent threat.

There should, however, be "increased vigilance, particularly in places with a high concentration of people," it said in a statement. Specific recommendations have also been issued to ensure the security of policemen and military officers in the Brussels region, it added.

Johan De Becker, the police chief for western Brussels neighbourhoods, told the broadcaster RTBF that the opening hours of police stations will be curtailed and that armed guards will be placed outside. Policemen will also patrol only in pairs.

The Belga news agency reported having seen an internal note circulated to Brussels police stations that spoke of a "possible and likely threat" of an attack that would be "in the same style" as the Paris terrorist killings, which left 130 people dead.

But the investigation into the New Year's plot has no links with the Paris attacks, prosecutors said in their statement. Several of those attacks' perpetrators had had links to Belgium.

No weapons or explosives were found during the searches in Belgium on Sunday and Monday, but police recovered propaganda material from the Islamic State extremist group, military-type training clothes and computer equipment, according to the prosecutors.

Two people were placed under arrest, one of them on charges of participating in the activities of a terrorist group as a leader, recruiting with a view to commit terrorist acts as a perpetrator or accomplice, and being implicated in the threat of an attack.

The other faces charges of participating in the activities of a terrorist group as a perpetrator or accomplice and being implicated in the threat of an attack, the prosecutors said.

Neither suspect was identified by name. Four other people who were taken into custody for questioning during the police searches have been released.
 

Story: Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl / DPA