BRUSSELS (AFP) – A language mix-up with an Iranian radiation student triggered a five-hour bomb alert on Wednesday (July 20) in central Brussels before police detained the man for questioning, police and officials said.
Police backed by bomb disposal teams cordoned off part of the Belgian capital where they surrounded the man, who aroused suspicion because he was wearing a long winter jacket with wires protruding from it on a hot day.
But Ghent University said he was in fact a student carrying equipment to compare radiation levels in the city and the countryside who was unable to answer police questions because he did not speak French or Flemish, which are Belgium’s languages.
The apparent false alarm came as Brussels was on high alert ahead of Belgian national day celebrations and following the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group’s bomb attacks on the airport and metro in March.
“When the bomb disposal robot moved towards the person under surveillance he made some very worrying statements that led us to fear that he had explosives on him,” Brussels police spokesman Christian De Coninck told RTL-TVI television.
“He was a student who was going to do his studies in radiation. So all the belongings he had on him, which were very suspect, were in fact harmless.”
A spokesman for Ghent University said he had been carrying a special “prototype” of wearable equipment to measure background radiation.
“This instrument takes the form of a jacket containing cables and batteries, which was considered suspect,” the spokesman told Belga news agency.
The university said the student was Iranian and spoke fluent English but could not answer questions in French or Flemish. He also failed to immediately show police a document confirming his research.
Photographs in local media showed the man on his knees at gunpoint.
Footage showed troops, police and firemen in and around the cordoned-off area at Place de la Monnaie, with the streets largely deserted in what is normally a very busy shopping district near the Brussels opera house.
The latest apparent false alarm comes a month after a man with psychiatric problems who was carrying a fake suicide belt full of salt and biscuits triggered a major anti-terror operation at a Brussels shopping mall.
Last week’s deadly Nice lorry attack set off a fresh wave of unease in Belgium and the latest incident, even if it proves to be a false alarm, will add to nerves as the country prepares to celebrate its national day on Thursday.
Belgium is the main source per head of population of jihadist recruits going from the European Union to fight with ISIS in Syria, causing deep concern that they will return home battle-hardened and even more radicalised.