Belgian police tonight shot dead two suspected Islamic State jihadists believed to have returned to Europe to carry out terrorist atrocities.
Shots and explosions were heard, including machine gun fire, as officers moved against an alleged cell in the eastern town of Verviers, which is some 70 miles from Brussels.Officials said the targets were a jihadist cell who had recently returned from Syria with orders to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe. One Flemish paper was reporting they intended to attack a police station. The raid, one of a dozen against suspected jihadis in Belgium today, follows three days of violence in nearby France, which left 20 people dead, including three Islamic State and Al Qaeda linked terrorists.Belgium, which has long been home to a large Muslim population, is believed to have the highest proportion of citizens who have left to fight in the Middle East, after Britain.
In May 2014, four people were shot dead in a suspected Islamist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who had previously been in Syria, has been charged with murder. The worst violence was witnessed around the town station. Hooded commandos appeared in the centre of Verviers shortly before 6pm, with officials saying the incident was 'jihadist-related'.One witness said: ‘There were police announcements to clear the area around six o’clock. We could see lots of police vehicles, and officers in balaclavas.‘Most of the police vehicles were in Rue de la Colline, and there were clearly anti-terrorist officers on the street. There were three or four explosions, and then continual gunfire. It was terrifying, but the police brought the situation under control.’ The suspects immediately opened fire on security forces when they closed in on them near the city's train station, Magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said in Brussels.
He said there was no link at this stage to the Paris attacks, and that the raid is the result of an investigation that has been underway for a few weeks.'These were extremely well-armed men,' with automatic weapons, Mr Van der Sypt said.The magistrate said more anti-terrorist raids were under way in the Brussels region and Verviers, adding that Belgium's terror alert level was raised to its second-highest level.The operation was part of an investigation into extremists returning from Syria, authorities said. Residents reported hearing gunfire and blasts. 'I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots,' one local told RTBF. 'For the moment, I cannot tell you any more because I don't dare go out to see what is happening.'
Another local heard two big explosions, followed by dozens of gunshots for about five minutes, according to a tweet by ABC News reporter Alexander Marquardt. Another local resident said 'machineguns were firing for about 10 minutes.' A fourth witness said he saw two young men apparently of North African origin 'dressed all in black carrying a bag of the same colour,' adding that the pair looked terrified.The men targeted in Verviers were under surveillance having returning from Syria a week ago, Belgian media reported. Intelligence indicated they were planning an attack, the reports said.Several reports said a series of other anti-terror raids were under way across Belgium, including in the capital Brussels, where the European Union is headquarters.