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Belgian authorities arrest 16 terrorism suspects in Brussels raids

23 November 2015, 18:50 Marion Trimborn, dpa

Brussels - Belgian police arrested 16 terrorism suspects in a major security sweep across Brussels, prosecutors said early on Monday.

The massive operation saw 19 raids carried out late on Sunday across Brussels, plus three search warrants carried out in the city of Charleroi. A judge was to decide later on Monday if the suspects can be held.

No weapons or explosives were found in the police sweep.

Brussels has been under the highest terrorism alert since Saturday.

In the city's Molenbeek district, officers fired on a car that drove at police. The wounded driver fled but was later captured, though authorities were still investigating whether the incident was terrorism-related.

Multiple suspects connected to the November 13 attacks in Paris, where 130 people were killed and 352 wounded, had ties to Brussels.

Suspected ringleader not found

Salah Abdeslam, brother of one of the Paris suicide bombers, was not among the suspects arrested in the overnight raids, said Eric Van der Sijpt, spokesperson for Belgian state prosecutors. The suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, he has been the target of a manhunt by Belgian police since shortly after the co-ordinated shootings and bombings at several locations in the French capital.

Abdeslam, who was believed to have been living in the Molenbeek district, is suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks before fleeing the Belgian capital.

Brussels remained on the highest terrorism alert following a decision by the Belgian national security council. The current status, Level 4, means there is a "serious and immediate" risk in the Belgian capital.

"We're worried about a similar attack like the one in Paris," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said earlier.

The government's goal is to return the situation to normal as soon as possible, and security authorities were to meet on Monday afternoon to "reassess the situation," he said.

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

‘The danger is real’

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

No information was released about specific threats.

Workers at a broadcasting company near Brussels had to evacuate their offices after a bomb threat, which proved to be false, police said.

"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 on 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 on Monday would continue, though non-essential personnel were allowed to stay at home.

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.

Passenger checks

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 on 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.

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