Two killed in Belgian anti-terrorist raids, 13 apprehended

Belgian police killed two men who opened fire on them during one of a dozen raids on Thursday against an Islamist group that federal prosecutors said was about to launch "terrorist attacks on a grand scale". The shooting happened in the eastern city of Verviers, while several other raids were held in the Halle-Vilvoorde and Brussels area.

In Verviers (photo), police commandos ran into a hail of gunfire when trying to gain entry to an apartment above a town centre bakery. A third man was detained, but he denied having anything to do with the attacks. Coming a week after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, the incident fuelled fears across Europe of young Muslims returning radicalised from Syria.

The Belgian probe had been under way before the on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on 7 January though, and officials see no obvious link between the two.

All three in Verviers were Belgian citizens. Belgium has one of the biggest concentrations of European Islamists fighting in Syria. In fact, per head of population, more Belgians have taken part in the fighting in Syria than any other European state, experts say.

12 raids, 13 taken in for questioning

At a press conference this morning, it was confirmed that the house raids took place at 12 different locations, and that a total of 13 suspects were arrested. Another 2 were later apprehended in France. (see: Read also for more details)

Speaking at a press conference, the federal prosecutors' spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt said that "probes had shown that the Islamist group "was about to stage major terrorist attacks in Belgium."  He added that "it has to be underlined that security forces, the Brussels federal police and special units of the federal police did an exceptional job." The attacks were apparently imminent and very concrete, and focused on police services (see our 'Read also' section).

Concerns

Local media quoted a national lawmaker as saying phone taps had prompted the operation. There has been concern in Europe that the French attacks, carried out by known radicals not seen as priority threats by security forces, might cause other groups to capitalise on public anxiety by accelerating plans to act.

Describing events in provincial Verviers after dark, Van Der Sypt said: "The suspects immediately and for several minutes opened fire with military weaponry and handguns on the special units of the federal police before they were neutralised."