BRUSSELS (AFP) - Belgium on Saturday began deploying hundreds of troops to patrol the streets after security forces smashed a suspected Islamist “terrorist” cell planning to kill police officers.
Up to 300 soldiers will be gradually deployed in the capital Brussels and the northern city of Antwerp, which has a large Jewish population, Prime Minister Charles Michel’s office said in a statement.
“The mobilised troops will be armed and their primary responsibility will be to survey certain sites” and to reinforce police, the statement said.
The soldiers could also eventually be deployed to the industrial eastern city of Verviers, where early on Friday security forces killed two suspected Islamists in a huge raid on an alleged militant cell planning to attack police in the country.
The Belgian raid came a week after Islamist attacks in and around Paris killed 17 people, rekindling fears in Europe about the threat posed by young Europeans returning home after fighting alongside extremist groups in the Middle East.
Following the raid in Verviers, Belgian police arrested 13 people during a series of raids across Belgium, five of whom were later charged with “participating in the activities of a terrorist group.”
Belgian prosecutors said there were no immediate links with last week’s Islamist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, a Jewish supermarket and a policewoman, the country’s worst attacks in half a century.
French and Belgian authorities were grilling suspected accomplices both of the Paris gunmen and the alleged “terrorist” cell raided in eastern Belgium.
Belgian police were hunting for the suspected mastermind of the cell, a notorious 27-year-old radical who spent time in Syria and who may have prepared the foiled attack from bases in Greece and Turkey, according to local media.
French police separately arrested 12 people early Friday and questioned them about “possible logistic support” they may have given to the Paris gunmen – Islamist brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly – sources said.
The raid came less than a year after four people were shot dead in an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Frenchman who fought in Syria has been charged with the murders.
With France still reeling from the attacks that targeted its cherished traditions of free speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry laid wreaths on Friday at both the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish supermarket during a visit to Paris.
The United States condemned the violence, saying there was a “universal” right of the press to freely publish any kind of information, including caricatures.
In Washington, US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to help France and others defeat global terrorism with stronger cooperation and surveillance.
In London, authorities were mulling “further measures” to protect police “given some of the deliberate targeting of the police we have seen in a number of countries across Europe and the world”, said Mark Rowley, head of counter-terrorism for the British police.