Home World News/International Jewish schools closed in Belgium with Europe on high terror alert

Jewish schools closed in Belgium with Europe on high terror alert

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The Guardian, Josh Halliday and Alexandra Topping in London, Ian Traynor in Brussels and Julian Borger in Paris

AA8eiJaSeveral Jewish schools in Belgium have been closed amid warnings that they are a potential target for Islamist militants following a major counter-terror raid that left two suspected jihadists dead and foiled an imminent terrorist atrocity.Cities across Belgium remained on a heightened state of alert on Friday following the bloody shootout in the eastern town of Verviers, near the German border, on Thursday night.

Jewish schools in Brussels and Antwerp were closed and classes cancelled after officials said they were a “potential target” for radical Islamists, the Belgian news site Joods Actueel reported.

The precaution came as Belgium’s foreign minister Didier Reynders confirmed on Friday morning that the country’s sweeping anti-terror operation – which included raids throughout the night in Brussels – was “over”.

The federal prosecutor, Eric Van Der Sypt, said last night that there was no link with last week’s terror attacks in Paris but revealed that an atrocity on a similar scale had been averted at the last minute.

“This operation stopped a major terrorist attack from taking place. You could say a second potential Paris has been averted,” he said.

Two gunmen were killed and a third arrested and charged after coming out shooting at security forces when their flat above a bakery was raided in the evening rush hour on Thursday.

All three gunmen were Belgian nationals and are thought to have belonged to a homegrown cell of jihadists that recently returned from Syria.

A senior Belgian counter-terrorism official, who was not named, told CNN that the alleged terror cell was believed to have received instructions from Islamic State. The US news outletquoted a separate Western intelligence source as saying that the ongoing terror threat in Europe involved up to 20 sleeper cells of between 120 to 180 people ready to strike in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Police sources told Belgian television stations they had resolved to launch the pre-emptive operation against the terrorist suspects a fortnight ago after bugging the homes and cars of the men who were said to have recently returned from fighting in the war in Syria. The investigation concluded that a large-scale attack was imminent, targeting police stations.

Parallel to the scenes in Verviers, special police units carried out at least a dozen raids elsewhere in Belgium in what appeared to be well-planned operations. They focused on neighbourhoods that are predominantly populated by immigrants in at least four districts in and around Brussels, with explosives reportedly found in the western Brussels area of Anderlecht. There was no police confirmation.

On Friday morning, police in Berlin arrested two men suspected of helping to recruit for Isis in Syria. The pair were taken into custody following dawn raids on 11 residences in the German capital. Police said the men were not suspected of planning attacks in Germany.

Paris police closed and evacuated the Gare de l’Est train station after a bomb threat, as authorities try to prevent new violence after the worst terrorist attacks in decades.

A police official said the station was closed “as a precaution”. The official, who was not authorised to be publicly named, would not give further details.

In Belgium, the prosecutor’s office said the terrorist suspects opened fire on police in Verviers when the raid was launched. No civilians or police were hurt in the operation. The wounded suspect, arrested and taken to Brussels, was said to be a Chechen known to the Belgian authorities.

Four Kalashnikovs, bomb-making equipment and police clothing were found after the raid, according to local media.

The suspects fired at the special units of the federal police for several minutes, using military weaponry and handguns, before they were “neutralised”, Van Der Sypt said. “The group was on the point of committing a major, imminent attack in Belgium,” he said.

He described the three heavily armed gunmen as an operational cell that had recently returned from fighting in the war in Syria. They were preparing “imminent terrorist attacks on a grand scale”.

A total of 10 search warrants were issued for synchronised raids in Brussels, as well as Verviers at the end of a surveillance campaign that had lasted several weeks.

The outcomes of the other police search operations were not made public. Belgian journalists accompanying some of the raids said explosives had been found. Van Der Sypt said Belgium’s terror alert for the security forces had been raised to its second-highest level.

Witnesses in Verviers said they heard a series of explosions at 5.45pm and then sustained gunfire near the railway station. They looked out of their windows to see the streets full of police vehicles 500 metres from the town mayor’s offices and beside the local justice ministry buildings which include a prison facility.

Belgium has a history in recent years as a European centre for radical Islamist activity. Authorities and studies by Britain’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation have estimated that about 300 Belgians have travelled to Syria, the highest per capita concentration in Europe for a country of 11 million. That compares with about 600 so-called foreign fighters who have left the UK.

One of Belgium’s best-known jihadist organisations – Sharia4Belgium – is at the heart of a huge, ongoing trial in Antwerp in which 46 members of the group have been accused of belonging to a terrorist organisation and brainwashing young men into fighting a holy war in Syria.

Last year, a gunman killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels. Belgian authorities say the suspect in that case, French national Mehdi Nemmouche, spent most of 2013 fighting in Syria.

 

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