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Brussels on high alert over threat of ‘imminent’ attack

Nicolas Lambert, Belga / AFP

Belgium raised the alert status for its capital Brussels to the highest level on Saturday, shutting the metro and warning the public to avoid crowds due to a “serious and imminent” threat of an attack.

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Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a press conference the measure had been taken because of the “threat of an attack by individuals with explosives and weapons at several locations in the capital”, without offering more details.

A week after the Paris attacks carried out by Islamic State militants, one suspect from Brussels is at large and said by authorities to be highly dangerous. The city was placed overnight on the top level "four" in the government’s threat scale after a meeting of top ministers, police and security services.

“The advice for the population is to avoid places where a lot of people come together like shopping centres, concerts, events or public transport stations wherever possible,” a spokesman for the government’s crisis centre said.

He declined to say what specifically prompted the new alert.

A statement on the centre’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”.

The crisis centre website said it was calling on local authorities to cancel large events, urge people to avoid crowds, postpone soccer matches, close the Brussels metro for the weekend and stepping up the military and police presence.

Prime Minister Michel said the government would review the security situation on Sunday afternoon.

Paris police have also passed measures, extending a ban on demonstrations and other gatherings in the region through Nov. 30, with the city and country still on high alert after deadly attacks.

The French capital's police department issued a statement Saturday saying the ban is being extended because of "the current context," including a nationwide state of emergency that's been extended for three months.

The department notes extra security concerns around the arrival of more than 100 heads of state for the U.N. climate conference that starts in a week. A march by environmental groups scheduled for Nov. 29 has been canceled.

Police are requiring all major concert venues to install special security measures.

Suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, 26, returned home to Brussels from Paris after the attacks, during which his elder brother Brahim blew himself up at a cafe.

Fears of the risk he still poses prompted the cancellation last week of an international friendly football match in Brussels against Spain. The crisis centre said weekend games in the top two professional divisions should now be postponed.

The alert level for the whole country was raised following the Paris attacks to level three out of four, implying a "possible or probable" threat. Previously, only certain sites, such as the US embassy, were at level three.

Brussels at centre of terror investigation

Belgium, and its capital in particular, have been at the centre of investigations into the Paris attacks - which included suicide bombers targeting a France-Germany football 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 group in Syria and was killed in the siege of an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis on Wednesday.

Another suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was from the same Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek and is said by officials to have known Abaaoud in prison.

Abdeslam 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.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told reporters he wanted a register of everyone living in Molenbeek because it was not clear at present who was there, with authorities conducting door-to-door checks of every house.

“The local administration should knock on every door and ask who really lives there,” Jambon said.

Meanwhile, Turkey said on Saturday it has detained a Belgian citizen of Moroccan origin, Ahmet Dahmani, 26, who is believed to have helped choose the sites for the Paris attacks.

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise given the fact that there have been raids day after day in the Brussels area since Friday’s attacks,” reported FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Brussels, Teri Schultz.

“The civil centre has been saying in recent days it was not going to raise the threat level if it didn’t have to so there must be a very serious and specific threat for them to go from three to four.”

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.

The capital as a whole was last at level four for about a month at the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, when authorities intercepted a plot to free convicted Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi. Brussels’s traditional New Year fireworks display was cancelled.

Trabelsi was sentenced in Belgium in 2003 to 10 years for attempting to blow up a Belgian military base that houses US soldiers. He was extradited to the United States in 2013.

The government’s four-level alert system has been in place since 2006.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, and REUTERS)

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