BRUSSELS (AFP) - Three people were shot dead and one badly injured when a gunman attacked the Jewish Museum in the centre of Brussels on Saturday in an apparently anti-Semitic act that shocked the country.
Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told a hastily-called news conference that Belgians stood “united ... faced with this hateful attack", while Belgium’s King Philip expressed his “indignation over this act of violence closely affecting the Jewish community.”
It is the first fatal attack on a Jewish centre since the early 1980s in Belgium, home to some 40,000 Jews, roughly half of them in Brussels, the remainder in the port city of Antwerp.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the murder “is the result of constant incitement against Jews and their state.”
The head of the EU executive Jose Manuel Barroso condemned “this terrible act” in the heart of the European capital, saying: “This was an attack at European values which we cannot tolerate.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said “there must be no impunity for terrorism.”
“Two women and one man are dead, a third person is in hospital,” Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said at the scene of the attack.
“We don’t yet know if they were tourists or staff, they haven’t been identified.” Asked whether she believed it was an anti-Semitic attack, Mr Milquet said it was too early to say with a police and judicial inquiry just underway, but that given the target “there are strong grounds for presuming so”.
A deputy public prosecutor, Ine Van Wymersch, said police had detained and were interrogating a person who admitted to having been on the scene at the time of the attack but who denied all involvement.
The person was initially interrogated as a suspect but later questioned as a witness, the public prosecutor’s office said.
An inquiry was opened for “murder with premeditation.” Van Wymersch said police believed two men were involved, one who left the scene at the wheel of a car and was in police custody and one who escaped on foot and who had not yet been identified.
Detectives were examining video camera footage in and outside the museum for further leads.
“This is an odious attack,” said premier Di Rupo. “Everything is being done ... to identify and arrest its author or authors.”
A Jewish community figure, Joel Rubinfeld, told AFP it clearly “is a terrorist act” after the two men were seen driving up and double-parking outside the museum.
One opened fire, allegedly shooting indiscriminately first in the entrance hall and then further inside before getting away.
The area around the museum was closed off and security beefed up to maximum level across the country in places associated with the Jewish community in Belgium, Milquet said.
The shooting took place at around 4pm (10pm Singapore time), with the victims apparently shot to kill in the face and throat.
A fourth person was critically hurt and fighting to survive.
A bystander, Alain Sobotik, told AFP he saw the corpses of a young woman and a man just inside the doors of the museum.A picture shows them lying in pools of blood.
“The young woman had blood on her head. She was still holding a leaflet in her hand, she looked like a tourist,” he said.
Also witness to the two corpses lying at the entrance shortly after the shooting was Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders who told reporters that the two other victims had been shot further inside the museum.
“I hope we will identify those responsible very quickly,” he said.
Reynders said he had been strolling nearby when he saw people fleeing and heard shots and rushed to help.
When he saw “bodies on the ground in pools of blood” he called the 112 emergency number and rounded up eye-witnesses to assist the police.
While stopping short of calling it an anti-Semitic act, Reynders said “evidently one thinks of that.” The Jewish Museum of Belgium is located in the heart of the Sablon district which is home to the city’s top antique dealers.
The area is a popular weekend haunt for shoppers and tourists, hosting the city’s best chocolate shops and many cafes.
“A deeply symbolic place was struck,” said Di Rupo. “The government expresses all its support to our country’s Jewish community.”
The attack came on the eve of elections in Belgium for a new federal government as well as for its regional parliaments and the European Parliament.
In 1982, a gunman opened fire at the entrance of the synagogue in Brussels, wounding four people, two seriously.