21 arrested and one charged in Belgian raids, Salah Abdeslam at large
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Belgian prosecutors announced Monday that they charged a fourth suspect with terrorism offences linked with the Paris attacks after carrying out raids Sunday that led to the arrest of 21 people, but that fugitive Salah Abdeslam was not among them.
Despite the raids, Belgian authorities maintained their highest terror alert in the capital for a third straight day and said that the metro and schools will remain closed until Wednesday.
Federal prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said 19 raids were carried out in Molenbeek and other suburbs of Brussels and three raids were carried out in other cities.
Five more raids in Brussels and eastern Liege yielded five more detentions, officials said later Monday morning.
15 detainees were released while three other suspects had their custody prolonged.
The federal prosecutor said in a statement Monday that a BMW sighting near Liege, which had rumored to contain Paris fugitive Salah Abdeslam, had no links with the ongoing investigation.
“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.”
One of those detained was injured when a car he was in tried to ram police during an attempted getaway, Van Der Sypt said.
The raids capped a tense day with hundreds of troops patrolling and authorities hunting for one or more suspected militants, the Belgian government having chosen Sunday to keep the capital on the highest state of alert into the start of the workweek to prevent a Paris-style attack.
Citing a “serious and imminent” threat, Prime Minister Charles Michel announced that schools and universities in Brussels will be closed Monday, with the subway remaining shut down, preventing a return to normal in the city that is also home to the European Union’s main institutions.
“We fear an attack like in Paris, with several individuals, perhaps in several places,” Michel said 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.
Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks after links to Brussels, and the poor district of Molenbeek in particular, emerged.
Fugitive suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, 26, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks, in which his elder brother Brahim blew himself up at a café.
Fears of the risks he still poses prompted the cancellation last week of an international friendly soccer match in Brussels against Spain.
In the Belgian capital the city's historic Grand Place, usually bustling with tourists, was quiet on Sunday, with just some stragglers crossing the cobblestones as an armoured vehicle stood outside the imposing town hall.
Michel told a press conference Saturday the measure had been taken because of the “threat of an attack by individuals with explosives and weapons at several locations in the capital”.
Brussels at centre of Paris attack investigations
Brussels has been at the centre of investigations into the perpetrators of last Friday’s deadly terrorist assault on Paris, which saw 130 people killed in a wave of shootings and suicide bombings across the French capital.
Three people detained in Brussels are facing terrorism charges, while French authorities have said the attacks were planned in the Belgian capital by a local man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who fought for the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and was killed in the siege of an apartment in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis on Wednesday.
Abdeslam, the suspect in the Paris attacks, was from the same Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek and is said by officials to have known Abaaoud in prison. Abdeslam is still on the loose and the subject of a vast international manhunt.
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
According to Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged by Belgian authorities for allegedly helping the 26-year-old return to the country, Abdeslam may be equipped with a suicide belt.
Attou's lawyer Carine Couquelet told French TV her client has described Abdeslam as very nervous on the journey.
"There are many possible theories: was (Abdeslam) a logistical support, was he supposed to blow himself up? Was he not able to do it? We don't know."
Abdeslam’s brother Brahim Abdeslam was one of the suicide bombers that struck Paris, as was another man from Brussels, Bilal Hadfi.
‘All necessary measures’
The carnage in Paris has seen security stepped up across Europe amid fears of further attacks.
In Madrid, fans for Saturday's El Clasico football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona were met by sniffer dogs, mounted police and countless identity checks.
In Turkey, police arrested a Belgian of Moroccan origin in connection with the Paris attacks in the resort of Antalya, the site of this week's G20 summit, along with two other suspects, probably Syrians.
Ahmet Dahmani, 26, is accused of helping to scout locations for the Paris attacks and then preparing to illegally cross the Turkish-Syrian border to rejoin the IS after arriving in Turkey from Amsterdam on his Belgian passport.
The UN Security Council on Friday authorised nations to "take all necessary measures" to fight IS jihadists after a wave of attacks across the world.
The resolution came after gunmen with an al Qaeda branch run by a notorious one-eyed Algerian militant besieged a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, killing 19 people, most of them foreigners.
Mali was struck a week after Paris and Beirut – where 44 people were killed in IS group bombings – and three weeks after the militants claimed to have downed a Russian plane in Egypt killing all 224 on board.
France has been shaken to its core by the Paris attacks and the subsequent shootout in Saint Denis on Wednesday between police and jihadists holed up in an apartment.
Along with suspected ringleader Abaaoud, Abaaoud’s cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen and an unidentified suicide bomber, who according to DNA tests is not known to police, were killed in the police assault on the apartment.
French police on Saturday released seven people arrested in the raid, but kept Jawad Bendaoud, who has admitted lending the apartment to two people from Belgium "as a favour," in custody.
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.
The European Union agreed Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year as France extended a ban on public gatherings to the start of a UN climate summit on November 30.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)