Family of Paris attacker at Brussels solidarity vigil

Mohamed Abdeslam, a brother of two men who helped carry out terrorist attacks in Paris, places candles on a window ledge of the family apartment.
Mohamed Abdeslam, a brother of two men who helped carry out terrorist attacks in Paris, places candles on a window ledge of the family apartment.AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Hundreds of Belgians joined a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks on Wednesday in Molenbeek, the troubled Brussels neighbourhood that was home to two brothers involved in the attacks.

Mohamed Abdeslam - whose brother Brahim blew himself up in Paris while another sibling Salah is still at large - lit a candle on the balcony of the family home in the main square in memory of the 129 victims, AFP journalists saw.

The two brothers implicated in the Paris attacks are among a number of jihadists to emerge from Molenbeek in recent years, but the estimated 2,500 people gathered for Wednesday's rally denied accusations that it had become an extremist hotbed.

"Molenbeek is not a base camp for jihadism," said town mayor Francoise Schepmans, wearing her ceremonial sash in the Belgian national colours of red, black and yellow.

Every street leading to the square was blocked with police barriers as officers patted down each person attending the twilight vigil.

Once inside the perimeter, attendees chalked out "Molenbeek" in giant letters across the square as well as the peace symbol.

In near silence, several people waved Belgian flags while others held balloons coloured in France's red, white and blue.

"The future of Brussels is here," Dries, a 37-year-old from a neighbouring district, said of the town of 96,000 people where 100 nationalities co-exist.

"We can't forget the young here, despite all the problems," he added.

"All these communities don't mix enough," said Quentin, a 39-year-old dance company director.

"This vigil is the occasion for them to meet. We can expect nothing from our politicians," he added.

Molenbeek has long been a breeding ground for radicalism.

In 2001, it was in Molenbeek that the assassins of Afghanistan's anti-Taleban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud stayed.

It was also home to one of the 2004 Madrid train bombers, as well as to the main suspect in the 2014 Jewish Museum attack in Brussels, while the perpetrator of a foiled attack in August on an Amsterdam-Paris train stayed in Molenbeek with his sister before boarding in Brussels.