Belgium weighs extending lockdown as security forces hunt 'several suspects' linked to Paris attacks

Belgian soldiers and a police officer patrolling central Brussels on Nov 21, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris.
Belgian soldiers and a police officer patrolling central Brussels on Nov 21, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris.PHOTO: REUTERS

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Belgian security officials meet on Sunday (Nov 22) to decide whether to extend a lockdown in Brussels over fears that militants are plotting a Paris-style attack, as police stepped up their hunt for key suspects behind the carnage in the French capital.

The Belgian capital was locked down for a second day on Sunday, with police and troops on the streets as the the authorities said they were searching for "several suspects" linked to the bloody attacks in Paris.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the authorities were looking not just for Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, who managed to slip past French security forces after the carnage in Pais, and his capture would not end the threat on its own.

"It involves several suspects and that is why we have put in place such exceptional measures," the Belga news agency cited Mr Jambon as telling Flemish television.

"We are following the situation minute by minute. There is no reason to hide that. There is a real threat but we are doing everything possible day and night to face up to this situation," he said.

The Belgian capital closed its metro system and shuttered shops and public buildings on Saturday as its terror threat was raised to its highest level over reports of an "imminent threat" of a major gun and bomb attack.

The city's historic Grand Place, usually bustling with tourists, was quiet, with just some stragglers crossing the cobblestones as an armoured vehicle stood outside the imposing town hall.

The national security committee will decide whether to extend lockdown, as security services intensified raids in the immigrant districts of the capital to track down militants thought to be behind the bloodshed in Paris.

Investigators are working around the clock to find Belgian-born Salah Abdeslam, one of the gunmen still on the loose after a coordinated wave of attacks on Parisian nightspots on Nov 13 that left 130 people dead.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said authorities feared a "Paris-style" assault "with explosives and weapons at several locations".

The carnage in Paris has put the EU on edge over fears that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-inspired extremists, who have killed hundreds around the world in recent weeks, can move freely through the bloc's passport-free Schengen zone.

In Madrid, fans for Saturday's El Clasico football match between Real Madrid and Barcelona were met by sniffer dogs, mounted police and countless identity checks.

In Turkey, police arrested a Belgian of Moroccan origin in connection with the Paris attacks in the resort of Antalya, the site of this week's Group of 20 summit, along with two other suspects, probably Syrians.

Ahmet Dahmani, 26, is accused of helping to scout the Paris attacks and then preparing to illegally cross the Turkish-Syrian border to rejoin ISIS after arriving in Turkey from Amsterdam on his Belgian passport.

The UN Security Council on Friday authorised nations to "take all necessary measures" to fight ISIS militants after a the wave of attacks across the world.

The resolution came after gunmen with an Al-Qaeda branch run by a notorious one-eyed Algerian militant besieged a luxury hotel in the Malian capital Bamako, killing 19 people, most of them foreigners.

Mali was struck a week after Paris and Beirut - where 44 people were killed in IS bombings - and three weeks after the militants claimed to have downed a Russian plane in Egypt killing all 224 on board.

In Cameroon, five people were killed and 10 wounded on Saturday when four teenage girls blew themselves up in a flashpoint northern town close to the Nigerian border that is often targeted by ISIS-allied Boko Haram Islamists.

France has been shaken to its core by the Paris attacks and a subsequent shootout on Wednesday between police and militants holed up in a Paris apartment.

Suspected attack ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed in the raid along with his cousin Hasna Aitboulahcen and an unidentified suicide bomber, who, according to DNA tests, is not known tothe police.

French police last Saturday released seven people arrested in the raid, but kept hold of Jawad Bendaoud, who has admitted lending the apartment to two people from Belgium "as a favour".

Abaaoud was a notorious Belgian militant thought to be fighting in Syria, and his presence in Europe raised troubling questions about a breakdown in intelligence and border security.

The European Union agreed last Friday to rush through reforms to the passport-free Schengen zone by the end of the year as France extended a ban on public gatherings until November 30 and the start of a UN climate summit.

Seven attackers died during their assault on Paris including Brahim Abdeslam, who blew himself up outside a bar, and a huge manhunt is under way for his brother Salah Abdeslam, who is believed to have fled to Belgium.

He may be equipped with a suicide belt, according to Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged by the Belgian authorities for allegedly helping the 26-year-old return to the country after the attacks.

Attou's lawyer Carine Couquelet told French TV her client has described Abdeslam as very nervous on the journey.

"There are many possible theories: was (Salah) a logistical support, was he supposed to blow himself up? Was he not able to do it? We don't know."