Brussels on highest alert as Belgian officials warn of ‘serious and imminent … – Washington Post

The metro system closed down, department stores shuttered, concerts were canceled and residents retreated indoors Saturday as the government warned of a “serious and imminent” threat against the Belgian capital similar to the coordinated assault that killed 130 in Paris barely a week ago.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Saturday that officials had identified shopping centers and public transportation as soft targets for a possible attack, involving multiple assailants at multiple locations. The government warned residents to avoid crowded locations. Bars and restaurants in the city center were asked to close for the night at 6 p.m. as fears of another terrorism strike in Europe mounted.

The latest threat, following one that led German officials to evacuate a soccer stadium Tuesday night in Hanover, heightened fears across an already-tense continent and showed the crippling effect of terrorism on daily life.

“The impact of our decision is enormous,” Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon said of the city shutdown. “But if something were to happen, the impact would be even bigger.”

As Belgian police locked down the city, investigators continued to hunt for one of the Paris attackers, Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French national who lived in Brussels and may have returned after the attacks.

Searches of homes overnight by police in the immigrant quarter of Molenbeek and other neighborhoods in Brussels uncovered explosives and weapons, the prime minister said. Belgian security officials said it appeared that suspects were planning simultaneous attacks, explaining the decision to raise the threat level to its highest.

Late Friday, an additional Belgian citizen was charged as an accomplice in connection with the Paris attacks and participation in a terrorist organization. Authorities declined to release his name.

The U.S. Embassy in Brussels also issued a security alert, warning U.S. citizens here “to shelter in place and remain at home.”

Armed troops stood guard in front of hotels and at major intersections. Movie theaters and public swimming pools were closed. A Saturday night concert by popular French singer Johnny Hallyday in a Brussels music venue capable of holding 18,000 was canceled. By nightfall, plays and other performances had been called off and ticket-holders were sent home.

Belgian officials said the city’s metro would remain closed through 3 p.m. Sunday, when the threat would be reassessed.

Remembering the victims of Friday’s attacks in Paris

In the city center of Brussels, the Belgians had disappeared. A Saturday felt like a Sunday, with most shops closed. At the Notre-Dame du Finistere church, a family celebrated a baptism, but a deacon kept a close eye on the front door. In the Grand Plaza, home to a lively open-air market, the mayor asked everybody to go home.

“Of course I’m afraid. We all are. I even called my boss telling him I’d prefer not to come to work today, but that was not an option,” said Linda Faraj, selling Belgian waffles in a shop on Nieuwsstraat, a main shopping boulevard that was deserted.

At an ice cream shop, Eveline Lebruyn was sharing a scoop with her mother. “I think we should continue our lives just like before,” Lebruyn said. “We can’t predict where they will attack, or if they do, so I try not to worry.”

The manager wasn’t so sure. “I guess these threats must be very serious,” he said.

In Paris, two of the attackers who detonated suicide vests at the Stade de France remained unidentified, although investigators have found fake Syrian passports for both of them. The identity of the third shooter who died at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris is still unknown.

Police also said Saturday that the DNA of the man who blew himself up Wednesday in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis during a pre-dawn raid — which killed suspected ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud — matches no known convicted or suspected criminal in the country’s fingerprint and identification database.

Investigators continue to search for Abdeslam, who was last seen a week ago in a car pulled over by police near the Belgian border, before his role in the attacks was known. The two Belgian men in the car with him at the time have been detained. A lawyer for one of the men told French media Saturday that her client described Abdeslam as extremely angry and possibly “ready to blow himself up.”

In a sign of the broad geographic footprint of the Parisian plot — and the growing number of conspirators involved in it — officials in Turkey arrested a Belgian man of Moroccan descent, 26-year-old Ahmad Dahmani, suspected of having scouted the locations of the Parisian attacks before Nov. 13. A Turkish government official said Saturday that security forces believe Dahmani is an Islamic State militant who was preparing to illegally cross the Turkish border into Syria.

Dahmani was detained Monday at a luxury hotel in Antalya with two other terrorism suspects, and a court order for their arrests was issued Friday. “We believe that Dahmani was in contact with the terrorists who perpetrated the Paris attacks,” the Turkish government official said.

In Paris, police on Saturday extended the ban on public gatherings until Nov. 30, although crowds have continued to form at the attack sites and at the Place de la Republique, a site of national mourning.

More than 15,000 people, including Muslim and Jewish community leaders, marched in silence in a demonstration Saturday in Toulouse to denounce “barbarism.” The Toulouse region has seen its own violence — a series of attacks were carried out there in March 2012, including one at a Jewish day school that killed four.

Badger reported from Paris. Annabell Van den Berghe in Brussels, Liz Sly in Baghdad, and Souad Mekhennet, Cléophée Demoustier and Virgile Demoustier in Paris contributed to this report.

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