Major terrorist attack thwarted, Belgium officials say

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VERVIERS, Belgium — Belgian authorities said they thwarted a major terrorist attack Thursday, killing two suspects in a gunbattle and arresting a third as authorities raised vigilance across Europe.

The raid on a former bakery in Verviers was another sign that terrorism has taken root deep in Europe’s heartland, just days after a terrorist rampage in Paris left 17 dead. The Belgian raid was part of a wider anti-terrorism campaign launched Thursday.

In Verviers, about 75 miles east of Brussels, police were closing in on several suspects in the early evening when they were met with bursts of semiautomatic fire, said Eric Van der Sypt, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.

“As soon as they thought special forces were there, they opened fire,” Van der Sypt said of the terrorism suspects.

After several minutes, the gunmen were “neutralized,” with two people dead and a third wounded and in custody, he said. No police officers or civilians were hurt.

Officials declined to provide further details about the raid, citing a continuing investigation. Van der Sypt said the raids in Verviers and elsewhere were focused on “several people who we think are an operational cell — certain people who came back from Syria.”

After the gunbattle, police continued searches in Verviers and the greater Brussels area, seeking more clues in a weeks-long investigation that started well before the rampage in Paris. The Belgian operations had no apparent link to the terrorist acts committed in France.

And, unlike the Paris terrorists, who attacked the office of a satirical newspaper and a kosher grocery store, the suspects in Belgium were reportedly aiming at harder targets: police installations.

“They were on the verge of committing important terror attacks,” Van der Sypt said in Brussels.

He said a judge who specializes in terrorism cases had issued about 10 search warrants for the raids Thursday, which were carried out in Brussels and in the surrounding Halle-Vilvoorde district, as well as in Verviers.

Monitored for weeks

Van der Sypt said the Belgian authorities had been monitoring the suspects for weeks — starting “before the attacks in Paris, I would like to stress.” The suspects are all Belgian citizens, he said, but he declined to comment on their activities in Syria.

Across Europe, anxiety has grown as the manhunt continues for potential accomplices of the three Paris terrorists, all of whom were killed by French police. Authorities in Belgium signaled they were prepared for more trouble by raising the national terror alert level from 2 to 3, the second-highest level.

“It shows we have to be extremely careful,” Van der Sypt said.

Authorities have said previously that 300 Belgians had gone to fight with Islamic militants in Syria; it is unclear how many have returned.

Earlier Thursday, Belgian authorities said they were looking into possible links between a man they arrested in the southern city of Charleroi on suspicion of illegal trade in weapons and Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four people in a Paris kosher market last week.

The man arrested in Belgium “claims that he wanted to buy a car from the wife of Coulibaly,” Van der Sypt said. “At this moment this is the only link between what happened in Paris.”

The man came to police claiming he had been in contact with Coulibaly’s wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, regarding the car. But he was arrested after a search of his residence when indications of illegal weapons trading were found.

Belgian news outlets reported that police had evidence that the man had arranged a sale of ammunition to Coulibaly.

A Belgian connection figured in a 2010 French criminal investigation into a foiled terrorist plot in which Coulibaly was one of the convicted co-conspirators. The plotters included a Brussels-area contact who was supposed to furnish both weapons and ammunition, according to French judicial documents.

Other nations on hunt

Several other countries are also involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the other gunmen in the French attacks, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi.

In Spain, authorities said Coulibaly drove Boumeddiene from France to Madrid on Dec. 31 and was with her until she took a flight to Istanbul on Jan. 2.

Spain’s National Court said it was investigating what Coulibaly was doing in Madrid with Boumeddiene and a third person who wasn’t identified but was suspected of helping Boumeddiene get from Turkey to Syria.

Coulibaly claimed allegiance to the Islamic State, the militant group that has taken control of much of Syria and Iraq. The Kouachi brothers claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which claims to have directed the attacks in Paris.

In Germany, authorities said they had detained a dual German and Tunisian citizen as a suspected member of the Islamic State who had traveled to Syria in May and returned to Germany in August.

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