Two suspected terrorists have been killed and a third arrested in a shoot-out with police in Belgium, prosecutors said last night.
The shoot-out in the town of Verviers, close to the German border, broke out as police mounted a series of raids amid fears an “operational cell” was about to mount a major terrorist attack.
A spokesman for the Belgian Federal Prosecutor said they had been investigating a group involving individuals who had recently returned from Syria.
“During the search warrants in Verviers, certain suspects immediately opened fire with automatic weapons,” Eric Van der Sypt said. “They opened fire for several minutes before being neutralised. Two of the suspects were killed. A third one has been arrested.”
With the investigation still ongoing, the Belgium authorities said the country’s terror alert was being raised to its second highest level.
The incident comes just a week after Islamist terrorists in neighbouring France killed 17 people in attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris.
Van der Sypt said there was no link at this stage to the events in the French capital. The Belgian authorities believe the suspects were planning to target police buildings in attacks which could have been carried out in a matter of days — or even hours.
Eyewitnesses to the raid described hearing a series of explosions followed by rapid fire.
Marylou Fletcher told the BBC: “We were going back from shopping and saw the police cars. We thought there was an accident then we heard something blowing up.
“We started running but did not understand what had happened. There was a lot of gunshots. My children cried. They are just terrified.”
The area around the train station at Verviers was cordoned off and there was a heavy police presence in the town centre.
Van der Sypt said police had been acting on a series of around 10 warrants relating to locations in Verviers and Brussels issued by a magistrate who specialises in terrorism cases.
The raid was carried out with the support of Belgian security services and “police special forces”, he said. No police or members of the public were injured.
Earlier, the Belgian authorities said they were looking into possible links between a man arrested in the southern city of Charleroi for illegal arms dealing and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four people in a Paris kosher market last week.
Meanwhile, President François Hollande assured Muslims in France and abroad his country respected them and their religion but would not compromise its commitment to freedom and democracy.
He told a meeting at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris that Muslims were “the first victims of fanaticism, fundamentalism and intolerance”.
His speech struck a careful balance between France’s commitment to protect its 5m-strong Muslim minority, Europe’s largest, and to uphold the principle of free speech even for caricatures that Muslims find offensive.
French Muslims have reported dozens of attacks on mosques since Islamist gunmen targeted satirical journal Charlie Hebdo last week. Authorities in several Middle East countries have denounced the newspaper’s decision to print more cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in its first post-attack edition on Wednesday.
“Islam is compatible with democracy and we should refuse any confusion [about this],” Hollande said at the Institute, where the slogan ‘Nous Somme Tous Charlie’ (‘We are all Charlie’) was written in French and Arabic on the walls.
“French of the Muslim faith have the same rights and duties as all citizens,” he said, and should be “protected and respected, as they should respect the republic”.
Also yesterday, the French military’s cyber defence specialist reported a surge of hacking against 19,000 French websites in the past four days, mostly denial of service attacks. Websites of all kinds were affected.
“This is the response to last Sunday’s march by people who do not share our values, ranging from shocked believers to hardened terrorists,” Vice-Admiral Arnaud Coustilliere told journalists, referring to a mass protest march led by Hollande and more than 40 world leaders.
Hollande also addressed the Arab world, saying: “France is a friend, but it is a country that has rules, principles and values. One of them is not negotiable — freedom and democracy.”
He said Paris would propose new measures to reinforce co-operation between Europe and Arab states around the Mediterranean, including letting more Arab students study in France.