Brussels on highest alert as suicide belt is found in Paris

Soldiers patrolled the streets of Brussels on the third day of a security lockdown, as a suspected explosive belt was found dumped near Paris and the mobile phone of a fugitive believed to have taken part in the attacks on November 13 was detected in two locations in the city.

Brussels on highest alert as suicide belt is found in Paris

France and Belgium continued to hunt for Brussels barkeeper Salah Abdeslam, 26, the suspected Islamist militant who has been on the run since the attacks in the French capital.

Abdeslam’s mobile phone was detected after the attacks in the 18th district in the north of Paris, near an abandoned car that he had rented, and then later in Chatillon in the south, the source said yesterday.

Detectives were examining what appeared to be an explosive belt found in a litter bin in the town of Montrouge, south of the capital and not far from Chatillon.

The source said it was too soon to say whether the belt had been in contact with Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself during the gun and suicide bomb attacks.

One theory was that Abdeslam had intended to blow himself up in the 18th district but had abandoned the plan, although it was not clear why.

“Maybe he had a technical problem with his explosive belt,” a police source said.

Fearing an imminent threat of a Paris-style attack, Belgium extended a maximum security alert in Brussels for a week but said the metro system and schools could re-open on Wednesday.

Authorities are still warning of possible imminent attacks like those in the French capital this month, in which 130 people were killed.

In Belgium, prosecutors said they had charged a fourth person with terrorist offences linked to the Paris attacks.

They released all 15 others detained in police raids on Sunday. Two of five people detained yesterday were also released while the other three had their custody prolonged..

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the city of 1.2m will remain on Belgium’s fourth and highest level of security threat, meaning the threat of an attack was “serious and imminent”.

“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Mr Michel said.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon told RTL radio, however, that Belgium’s capital was still operating. “Apart from the closed metro and schools, life goes on in Brussels, the public sector is open for business today, many companies are open,” Jambon said.

Germany has kept security along its border with Belgium at a high level since the Paris attacks, a German police spokesman said after media reports that Abdeslam was spotted near the frontier. Several Belgian media carried unsourced reports saying he had been seen in a car near the eastern city of Liege heading toward Germany. There have been numerous reported sightings in recent days.

However, Belgian prosecutors said a BMW car that failed to stop for a routine check near Liege, close to the German border, had been found and inquiries showed there was no link to the investigation.

ING economist Philippe Ledent noted the biggest companies’ business was international and therefore the global situation was more important to them. “For smaller companies active mostly in Belgium, they will have business in the rest of the country which is less affected,” he said. “If this is limited in terms of days, in terms of area, it’s not so much of a problem.”

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks after French law enforcement bodies said two of the suicide bombers had lived there. Three people have been charged in Belgium with terrorist offences, including two who travelled back with Abdeslam from Brussels.

Among those who decided to go out on Monday was Zineb Toubarhi, a business engineering student in Brussels, who was waiting to catch a bus on a frosty morning. “I am going to my friends’ place to look after their children today.

"They must go to work and the schools are closed. I’ve had classes cancelled at the university so I will help them,” she said. “It feels strange to see armed soldiers in the streets but this is for our security. So, I don’t know why, but I am not afraid.”

Meanwhile, the attacks in Paris are having a major impact on tourism, initial figures show, pushing the French prime minister to meet industry officials to come up with a plan to limit the damage and keep visitors coming to the City of Light.

Museum ticket sales have plummeted and there are none of the usual lines of people waiting to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower.

While Parisians have put on a brave face since the attacks, which targeted entertainment spots like cafes and a concert hall, tourists are shying away. Those that do come notice a strange, oppressive mood.

“You can really feel how nervous and scared people are,” said 40-year-old South African Shaun Bruwer. He was at a train station when the sound of a pigeon getting electrocuted on the tracks “sent people running in all directions”.

The Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay museums, two of the most popular spots on the Paris tourist circuit flanking the Seine river, said they’ve both recorded a 30% drop in visitors compared with the week before the November 13 attacks. The Pompidou, the main museum of modern art, says ticket sales have halved.

Business activity in the wider economy was also slowing in November, according to a survey by financial data company Markit.

The health of the tourism sector is crucial for central Paris, as it employs almost 200,000 people out of a population of just over 2m. More than 22m people stayed in hotels in 2013.

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