BRUSSELS, Nov 22, (Agencies): Belgium will keep the highest threat level for Brussels on Monday, with the metro as well as schools remaining closed because of a “serious and imminent” threat of coordinated, multiple attacks, the country’s prime minister said.
For the rest of the country, a threat level of three on a four tier scale would remain in place, prime minister Charles Michel said.
“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could also possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Michel told a press conference in Brussels.
Possible targets were malls, shops and public transport, Michel said, adding the government would boost police and army presence in the capital.
Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks after links to Brussels, and the poor district of Molenbeek in particular, emerged.
Fugitive suspected militant Salah Abdeslam, 26, slipped back home to Brussels from Paris shortly after the attacks, in which his elder brother Brahim blew himself up at a cafe.
Fears of the risks he still poses prompted the cancellation last week of an international friendly soccer match in Brussels against Spain.
The Belgian capital was locked down for a second day Sunday with police and troops on the streets.
With the world on edge over the jihadist threat, US President Barack Obama said the most powerful tool to fight the Islamic State extremist group was to say “that we are not afraid”.
In Paris, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a chemical or biological attack “was among the risks” faced but that all possible precautions had been taken.
Central Brussels, usually bustling, was virtually deserted, with police and troops on patrol.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the authorities were looking not just for Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam who managed to slip past French security forces after the carnage in the City of Light.
He warned that the capture of Abdeslam, a Belgian-born 26-year-old whose brother Brahim blew himself up at a cafe in Paris, would not in itself end the threat.
“It involves several suspects and that is why we have put in place such exceptional measures,” the Belga news agency cited Jambon as telling Flemish television.
Belgium and the capital, home to the European Union and NATO, are no strangers to Islamist violence.
Four people were shot dead at the Brussels Jewish museum last year, and in January security forces killed two suspects linked to the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris.
The UN Security Council on Friday authorised nations to “take all necessary measures” to fight jihadist violence after a wave of attacks, including the downing of a Russian aircraft in Egypt with the loss of 224 lives and the storming of a luxury hotel in Mali which left 19 dead.
Obama said Sunday he would press ahead with a visit to Paris for UN climate talks in December, calling on world leaders to show similar resolve.
“I think it’s absolutely vital for every country, every leader, to send a signal that the viciousness of a handful of killers does not stop the world from doing vital business,” he said.
“The most powerful tool we have to fight ISIL is to say that we’re not afraid.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Mali attack, in which six Russians died, showed terrorism was a global threat which must be confronted “with the broadest international cooperation.”
French President Francois Hollande next week meets a series of world leaders, including Obama and Putin alongside Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron to discuss what can be done to counter the IS threat.
In Turkey, police arrested a Belgian of Moroccan origin in the resort of Antalya, the site of last week’s G20 summit, along with two other suspects, probably Syrians.
Ahmet Dahmani, 26, reportedly scouted out targets for the Paris attacks, which saw gunmen and suicide bombers target bars, restaurants, a rock concert and the national football stadium.
The suspected ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, died in a massive police raid in Paris on Wednesday along with his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen, reportedly a one-time party girl who turned to radical Islam about six months ago.
Abaaoud was a notorious Belgian jihadist thought to be fighting in Syria and his presence in Europe has raised troubling questions about a Europe-wide breakdown in intelligence and border security.
Questions remain too over what role Salah Abdeslam — who used to run a bar with his brother Brahim in Brussels — played in the bloodshed.
A third brother, Mohamed Abdeslam told RTBF television Sunday he believed Salah had changed his mind at the last moment and had not gone through with the attack.
Mohamed Abdeslam said the family wanted Salah to give himself up.
“That way he can give us the answers we seek, our family and the families of the victims,” he said, adding: “We would rather see Salah in prison than in the cemetery.”
Salah Abdeslam may be equipped with a suicide belt, according to Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged by Belgian authorities for allegedly helping him return to the country after the attacks.
Meanwhile, France’s army chief of staff said on Sunday he sees no short term military victory in the fight against Islamic State as Paris intensifies its strikes on targets in Syria following the deadly attacks in the French capital.
President Francois Hollande has called for a grand coalition, including the United States and Russia, to eradicate Islamic State in Syria, and is due to meet with Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin next week.
Islamic State, also known as Daesh, claimed responsibility for the worst violence in France since World War Two, in which 130 people were killed in bombings and shootings. The group said the assaults were in retaliation for Paris’ involvement in US-backed air strikes in Iraq and Syria.
“There will be no military victory against Daesh in the short term,” Pierre de Villiers, chief of staff of armed forces, told French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche in an interview published on Sunday.
“In the military, we are used to the long term but people … want fast results. In Syria and Iraq, we are in the heart of that paradox. Everybody knows that in the end this conflict will be resolved through diplomatic and political channels.”
Hollande will travel to Washington to speak with Obama on Tuesday and then head to Moscow to meet with Putin to discuss how their countries’ militaries might work together.
Russia and Western countries are divided over Syria. Moscow is supporting President Bashar al-Assad while the West says he should leave power to end Syria’s civil war.
De Villiers said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart by phone to discuss their countries’ ships with regard to Syria but added that France had not “at this stage any coordination of strikes or identification of targets in consultation with the Russians, even if we have the same enemy Daesh.”
Since the Nov 13 Paris bombings and shootings, French war planes have launched their biggest raids in Syria to date, including hitting Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa.
In the space of three days, some 60 bombs were dropped as training camps or command centres were targeted last week, de Villiers said.
“I honestly think that we seriously hurt them,” he said.
De Villiers added that France currently has some 34,000 soldiers deployed in France and abroad. On Monday, Hollande said he would avoid cuts to defence spending before 2019.