'Bomb' in Brussels had only salt and biscuits

BRUSSELS • A man who said he was wearing a bomb belt rigged to explode by remote control caused a major scare in a Brussels commercial district yesterday before police found that the device contained only salt and biscuits.

The Belgian capital remains on edge under a high security alert three months after three suicide bombers who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) blew themselves up at Brussels Airport and in a metro train, killing 32 people.

Just this weekend, the Belgian authorities charged three people in connection with a separate suspected terror plot possibly involving a plan to attack fans gathering to watch the national football team in the Euro 2016 tournament.

Yesterday, Brussels police detained a man near the bustling City2 shopping centre in Rue Neuve, one of the busiest shopping streets in the Belgian capital, after he announced that he was strapped with explosives that would be set off remotely. The area was sealed off while bomb experts checked the man's belt.

The man, born in 1990 and identified as J.B., had called the police himself to say he had been abducted and forced to wear an explosives belt. It proved to be a false alarm.

Police blocking access to the City2 shopping centre in Brussels yesterday after a man called the police to say that he had been abducted and forced to wear an explosives belt.
Police blocking access to the City2 shopping centre in Brussels yesterday after a man called the police to say that he had been abducted and forced to wear an explosives belt. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

"J.B. is known to police, also because of mental problems," a Brussels prosecutors' spokesman said, adding however that the incident was still being investigated for possible connections to terrorism.

City2 had been mentioned in Belgian media in recent days as a possible target for attacks.

The apparent threat triggered a massive security operation. Only one exit remained open at the nearby Rogier metro station, where soldiers checked passengers' bags and belongings.

In 2014, J.B. told police he had been ordered to go to Syria to join militants fighting in the civil war there, an incident that remains under investigation, prosecutors said.

Police also located a car that brought J.B. to the shopping mall and were questioning the owner, a police spokesman said.

Belgium's Crisis Centre, which oversees security measures, convened with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and Interior Minister Jan Jambon to discuss yesterday's incident.

In proportion to its population, Belgium has the highest number in the European Union of so-called foreign fighters, an estimated 500, who have travelled to wage militancy in Syria and Iraq.

Separately, three men with suspected links to ISIS-linked murderer Larossi Abballa, who killed a police officer and his partner outside Paris last week, were arrested yesterday on suspicion of spying on other police officers, police sources said.

REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline ''Bomb' in Brussels had only salt and biscuits'. Print Edition | Subscribe