Several hundred people gathered in mourning and defiance in the Belgian capital Sunday to remember victims of the country's worst-ever terror attacks, despite organisers of a planned peace march cancelling the event at the authorities’ request.
At the capital’s central Place de La Bourse, which has turned into a shrine to the victims of Tuesday’s airport and metro attacks, people, some tearful, milled around under the watchful gaze of heavily armed police and soldiers.
“There are a few hundred people here at the moment, no more than that, and a relatively heavy police and army presence in the surrounding streets,” said FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore, reporting from the Place de la Bourse.
"Not in the name of Islam," read one banner on the columns of the stately former stock exchange building in the central square.
"This is our dream," read another among a sea of flags from all over the world, as the carpet of flowers, candles and messages grew steadily larger.
"I come here every evening and stay here until midnight in a gesture of solidarity," said Mohamed Said Si Ahmed Haddi, 50, a Belgian from Algeria. "We must not hide away."
The peaceful gathering was interrupted, however, by the arrival of around 200 black-clad, far-right hooligans shouting nationalist and anti-immigrant slogans.
"This is our home" and "The state, Daesh accomplice," the nationalists shouted in unison, using an alternate term for the Islamic State group that claimed Tuesday's suicide bombings.
Police, backed by water cannon, removed the far-right protesters after around an hour, Moore reported. Around 10 people were arrested, police told AFP.
March cancelled amid security fears
The turnout came despite organisers of a "March Against Fear" planned to take place at Place de La Bourse Sunday afternoon agreeing to cancel the event after the authorities asked them to do so because of security fears.
"We understand this request. The security of our citizens is an absolute priority. We join the authorities in proposing a delay and ask people not to come this Sunday," the organisers said in a statement on Saturday.
The authorities had earlier asked for the march to be put off, perhaps for several weeks, to allow the police to concentrate their resources on the investigation into the attacks that left 31 dead and 300 wounded.
"We invite the citizens tomorrow to not have this [march]," Interior Minister Jan Jambon said, speaking in English.
“We understand fully that everybody wants to express this feeling, but it is our responsibility that this can be done in the best circumstances possible," he said.
Belgian interior minister calls for Brussels march to be postponed
The main argument to postpone is to avoid putting further strain on Belgian police at a key time for the nationwide investigation that has already resulted in several anti-terrorism raids and multiple arrests.
The organisers had wanted to stage the march in a bid to show that Brussels and the country at large refuses to be intimidated by terrorism and that everyone stands together.
"This week, we, Belgian citizens have been attacked, in how we live, our customs, our rights, our liberty," they said in an earlier statement.
"The first reaction in such events is to withdraw but on reflection, fear must give way to hope and the defence of our values."
‘We will sleep here’
Some residents remained determined to still stage a march, however.
"We [will] sleep here. We will go home and eat and shower, then come back. We will be here on Sunday," one participant told FRANCE 24 in Brussels.
Others said they could understand the security concerns, but that the march should still go ahead.
"I think they [the authorities] should find a way to protect this march as much as they can and let it go ahead because [this] is the time to do it,” a resident said.
Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said he recognised and shared the feelings of those who wanted to participate but given the absolute need for the police to focus on the attacks, it was best to delay the march.
"Let us allow the security services to do their work and that the march, which we too want to take part in, be delayed for several weeks," Mayeur told a press conference with Jambon at the national crisis centre.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2016-03-27