Belgium extends highest terrorism alert amid manhunt for suspects


Brussels will remain on the highest terrorism alert Monday following a decision made by the Belgian national security council, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.

The current status, Level 4, means there is a “serious and immediate” risk in the Belgian capital.

Michel said Sunday that the goal is to return the situation to normal as soon as possible, and security authorities will reconvene Monday afternoon to “reassess the situation.”

Until then, the Brussels underground will not operate, and schools and universities will remain shuttered. Citizens were advised to avoid high-traffic areas including shopping centres, stadiums and train stations.

The rest of Belgium was at security threat Level 3, which means an attack is “possible and likely.”

The decision to extend the maximum terror alert, in place since Saturday, to a third day came as police continued a manhunt for two suspected terrorists wanted in connection with the deadly November 13 Paris attacks.

“We’re worried about a similar attack like the one in Paris,” Michel said.

Although no information has been released about specific attacks, or about leads in the manhunt, the city remains on high alert. Workers at a broadcasting company near Brussels had to evacuate their offices after a bomb threat that turned out to be false, police said.

Multiple suspects connected to the bombings and shootings in Paris, which killed 130 people and left 352 wounded, had ties to Brussels. For more than a week, Belgian police have been searching for Salah Abdeslam, brother of one of the Paris suicide bombers.

Abdeslam, who lives in the Brussels district of Molenbeek, is suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks before returning to the Belgian capital.

“This danger is real,” Bernard Clerfayt, mayor of the district of Schaerbeek, told broadcaster RTBF. “We have learnt that two terrorists are in Brussels territory and could commit dangerous acts.”

The security alert was imposed early Saturday. Belgian media reported that security procedures were at unprecedented levels.

It remains to be seen how the heightened security will operate on a workday. Brussels is home to 1 million people and the headquarters of both the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

The EU said planned ministerial meetings Monday would continue.

Michel said decisions would have to be made day by day.

“We’re not happy with the situation, but we have to take responsibility,” he said as he called for calm.

Buses, trams and trains continued to provide service in Brussels, with authorities intensifying passenger checks.

Extra security was reported at Belgian airports and train stations.

Despite the presence of military in Brussels streets, most people remained calm.

“Life goes on,” said the owner of a newspaper kiosk, calling the security measures excessive.

Alain Berlinblau, a member of the inner city’s retail association, said: “To close on Saturday is a catastrophe for our business.”

Later Sunday, bars and cafes in central Brussels were asked to close on security grounds.

“We have to do it for the security of our customers,” waitress Lourdes Taipe said.