- Schools and subway system in capital to open on Wednesday
- Fourth suspect charged with involvement in Paris attacks
The Belgian government extended its lockdown for Brussels into a fourth day, saying terrorists were planning attacks on shopping malls and public transport, as Belgian police continued their hunt for a key suspect in the Paris terror assaults.
Brussels will stay on its highest state of alert on Tuesday with schools and the subway network remaining closed for another day because of a continued “serious and imminent” threat, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a press conference late Monday in Brussels.
“We are still confronted by the same type of threat as I laid out yesterday,” Michel said. “The potential targets remain the same.”
The lockdown has been in place since Saturday and was extended following a series of searches by counter-terrorism forces that have resulted in the arrest of 21 individuals over concern a terror cell was planning an attack in the Belgian capital, prosecutors said. Belgium-born Salah Abdeslam, one of two brothers believed to have been involved in the Paris assaults that killed 130, continued to elude authorities.
Belgian authorities on Monday charged one of 16 suspects detained during raids on Sunday night with taking part in the Paris attacks and released the other 15, the federal prosecutor’s office said in an e-mailed statement.
The Belgian capital of around 1.2 million people was quiet at the weekend and on Monday -- with schools, shops, banks and the metro system closed -- after the prime minister said the threat of a Paris-style attack on multiple locations was “very serious and imminent.” European governments prepared to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State, with France putting naval forces in position to bomb the radical group’s bases in Syria and the U.K. offering Britain’s airbase in Cyprus for the operations.
“The U.K. will do all in our power to support our friend and ally France to defeat this evil death cult,” Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in Paris after meeting with French President Francois Hollande. “It’s absolutely right to take decisive action to stop terrorists.”
The decision to keep Brussels on a heightened state of alert extended the disruption to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, both of which have their headquarters in the city. NATO told non-essential staff to stay at home Monday, while the EU opened with reinforced security. KBC Groep NV, Belgium’s biggest bank, closed its headquarters in the capital on Monday.
“We are working from home and from our disaster recovery dealing room to avoid public places in Brussels,” said Piet Lammens, global head of market research at KBC. “I hope we’ll be back in the office tomorrow. We’ll evaluate the situation later today.”
Brussels has been on its guard since it emerged that at least three jihadists behind the Paris assaults lived in the city. Abdeslam, who’s now the focus of an international manhunt, comes from the Molenbeek district of the capital. Belgian counter-terrorism officers have carried out 29 raids in Brussels, Charleroi and Liege within the last day, federal prosecutors said.
The center of Brussels was filled with gun-toting soldiers, while green army vehicles made their way through snarled traffic outside buildings housing European institutions. Security guards stood outside supermarkets, which reopened after closing over the weekend.
“Bombs, shooting, Brussels being the center of the world, it’s strange -- everyone is scared,” said Raphael Van Antwerpen, who runs a cafe in the heart of Brussels. “I’m most worried about my daughter,” whose school just outside the capital is open, he said.
At the building housing the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, police used a mirror on a stick to check under vehicles, while armed soldiers guarded the entrance. Finance ministers from the 19 nations using the euro went ahead with a scheduled meeting in Brussels on Monday afternoon.
“A terror alert or any similar situation makes it all the more pressing on the affected state leaders to be seen to be taking charge,” Maltese Finance Minister Edward Scicluna said in an email. “The eurogroup finance ministers’ meeting is no exception.”
After seeing Cameron on Monday, Hollande will meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Wednesday. He’ll travel to see Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.
Cameron said in Paris that he’ll present a “comprehensive strategy” to the U.K. Parliament this week for tackling IS in Syria. He’s seeking approval from lawmakers to join in airstrikes. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that planes from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle would be ready to carry out strikes beginning Monday.
In Brussels, store owners are wondering how long these extraordinary measures will continue. Michael Raynaekers has run a flower shop near the European Commission for the last 18 years. His clients are mostly the big offices nearby, and he’s worried: these are normally his three busiest weeks.
“Business will be less than 50 percent today,” he said in his store filled with baubles and other Christmas decorations. “People are scared. Just look at the streets, they are empty.”