Anti-terror raids in Belgium, France, Germany net 2 dozen suspects
Raf Casert and Angela Charlton, The Associated Press
Published Friday, January 16, 2015 3:59AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 16, 2015 5:56PM EST
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Belgium ordered its army into the streets and anti-terror raids across Western Europe netted dozens of suspects Friday as Europe rushed to thwart more attacks by people with links to Mideast Islamic extremists.
As anxiety soared in the wake of last week's bloody spree in and around Paris, the broad scope of the police actions illustrated the challenges facing a continent threatened by Islamic militancy far from the battlefields of Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Rob Wainwright, head of the police agency Europol, told The Associated Press that foiling such attacks by returning jihadists had become "extremely difficult" because Europe's estimated 2,500 to 5,000 radicalized Muslim extremists have little command structure and are increasingly sophisticated.
French, German, Belgian and Irish police had at least 30 suspects behind bars on Friday and in Brussels, authorities said a dozen searches led to the seizure of four Kalashnikov assault rifles, hand guns and explosives. Several police uniforms were also found, which Belgian authorities said suggested the plotters had intended to masquerade as police officers.
The seizures followed a vast anti-terrorism sweep on Thursday in and around Brussels and the eastern industrial city of Verviers in which two suspects were killed in a firefight and a third wounded as police closed in on their hideout. Authorities said the overnight operation netted several returnees from Islamic holy war in Syria.
Federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said Friday the suspects were within hours of implementing a plan to kill police. He said authorities were reasonably confident they had dismantled the core of a dangerous terrorist cell but more suspects could be at large.
"I cannot confirm that we arrested everyone in this group," he told reporters.
Authorities have said there was no apparent link between the foiled plots in Belgium and last week's terror attacks in Paris on a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket.
However, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Friday that while there was no apparent operational connection between the two terror groups, "the link that exists is the will to attack our values."
Visiting the tense French capital, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met President Francois Hollande and toured the sites of last week's attacks on the Charlie Hebdo weekly and a kosher supermarket. Twenty people, including the three gunmen, were killed.
One of the Paris attackers had proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State group, and French and German authorities arrested at least 14 other people Friday suspected of links to the Islamic extremist group.
Another 13 people were detained in Belgium and two were arrested in France in a separate anti-terror sweep following the firefight Thursday in Verviers. And in Ireland, police arrested a suspected French-Algerian militant at Dublin Airport as he tried to enter the country using a false passport. The man, who was being interrogated, landed on a European watch list after expressing support in social media for last week's attacks.
Authorities said most of those detained or killed in Belgium were citizens and some had returned from Syria, where 450 Belgians are believed to have joined the fight with Islamic radicals, according to Peter Neumann of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. He said about 150 have since returned home.
President Francois Hollande said France was "waging war" on terrorism and it showed on the streets of Paris and elsewhere, where 122,000 police and well-armed troops have been deployed to protect the country, which is on high alert.
Illustrating the sense of high anxiety, a bomb scare forced Paris to evacuate its busy Gare de l'Est train station during Friday's morning rush hour, though no explosives were found. A man also briefly took two hostages at a post office northwest of Paris, but police said the hostage-taker had mental issues and no links to terror.
Remarking on the heavy weapons carried by policemen close to the Louvre, 20-year-old Mimi George, a student visiting from Australia, said: "Just seeing huge machine-gun rifles is quite scary."
The Belgian government, meanwhile, announced it was sending army troops into the streets beginning Saturday, part of a 12-point, anti-terror plan lawmakers agreed to in the wake of Thursday's deadly firefight. The government will also expand legislation to make travelling abroad with a terror goal a crime and allowing authorities to seize the ID cards of people suspected of travelling to such areas.
The Belgian government's move was welcomed in the port of Antwerp, which has a sizable Jewish community.
"You don't have the firepower to stop people with weapons of warfare," unless troops are involved, Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever said. "We have an important Jewish community in this city which is very visible and an important target for Islamic terror," he told VRT network.
In Germany, Interior Ministry spokesman Tobias Plate spoke of an "abstract high danger" following the arrests in Berlin of two men suspected of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria. Prosecutors said 250 police officers participated in the dawn raids on 11 residences, part of a months-old investigation into Turkish extremists.
A poll carried out this week in the wake of the Paris attacks for ZDF television, showed 70 per cent of Germans fear an attack on the country by Islamic extremists, up 10 percentage points from a survey taken in September. The poll, released Friday, questioned 1,287 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.