Police probe deadly rampage in Belgian city

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Liege (Belgium) (AFP)

Belgian police were Wednesday investigating how a gunman known for contacts with Islamist extremists came to launch a brazen suspected terror attack, shooting dead two female officers with their own weapons before killing a bystander.

The late morning bloodshed shocked the eastern industrial city of Liege when the attacker armed with a knife repeatedly stabbed the two policewomen before using their own firearms to kill them.

Police were scrambling to unpick the motives of the attacker identified as Benjamin Herman, a 36-year-old with a decade spent in and out of prison for acts of violence and petty crimes, who was out of jail on leave when he attacked.

Amateur footage obtained by AFP showed the gunman shouting "Allahu Akbar" (Arabic for "God is greatest") as he walked through the Liege streets during the rampage.

In another video, the suspect darts out of a school where he had holed up into a short and intense burst of police gunfire, after which the man collapses to the ground.

Federal prosecutors said they had launched a terror investigation into the incident and would hold a press conference at 10:30 am (0830 GMT) Wednesday, though Interior Minister Jan Jambon urged caution over any extremist angle.

"There are signals that there was radicalisation in the prison but did this radicalisation lead to these actions? There too we can ask ourselves a lot of questions," he told RTL radio.

- Brutal hammer murder -

Special attention is being given to the gruesome murder of an alleged heroin dealer linked to Herman who was bludgeoned to death with a hammer late Monday near the Luxembourg border.

Investigators on Tuesday found the hammer in Herman's car and Jambon said police believed the Liege attacker carried out the killing just hours after getting temporary release from prison.

He "had nothing to lose" after "committing a murder (in the night of Monday to Tuesday)," a source close to the investigation told AFP.

As well as the two policewomen, the attacker also shot dead a 22-year-old student sitting in a parked car in central Liege. He then took a female cleaner hostage in the nearby Leonie de Waha school, a public institution with several hundred students aged from two to 18.

The two murdered police officers were identified as Lucile Garcia, 53, who had recently become a grandmother, and Soraya Belkacemi, 45, a mother to 13-year-old twins.

Debate in Belgium was swirling on the country's prison policy with reports that Herman had repeatedly blown the conditions of his temporary leave from jail ahead of his full release set for 2020.

"I feel responsible because I have responsibility for prisons," Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told RTBF radio.

Liege, a major city in Belgium's blighted rustbelt, was the scene of another bloody shootout in 2011 when a former convict killed six people and wounded more than 120 before turning the gun on himself.

Liege police on Tuesday said it was "clear that the assassin's objective was to attack the police" and that one of the four officers wounded had suffered a serious leg injury.

Prime Minister Charles Michel denounced what he called the "cowardly and blind violence" of Tuesday's attack.

- Terror alert -

Belgium has been on alert since authorities in January 2015 smashed a terror cell in the town of Verviers near Liege that was planning an attack on police.

The cell also had links to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind of the November 2015 Islamic State attacks on Paris that killed 130 people.

Belgium further raised its terror alert level after the Paris attack and placed the capital Brussels on lockdown for a week.

IS suicide attacks then targeted Brussels airport and a metro station, leaving 32 people dead in March 2016.

In August that same year, a machete-wielding man shouting "Allahu Akbar" attacked two policewomen in the industrial town of Charleroi before being shot dead.

The country's law enforcement agencies and intelligence services came under intense scrutiny for apparently missing a series of leads after the Paris attacks that could have led to the Brussels bombers.