(AFP) – Dec 21, 2007
BRUSSELS (AFP) — Belgian police boosted security in Brussels on Friday amid fears of a possible Christmas attack after they foiled a suspected plan to free an Al-Qaeda sympathiser from prison.
Justice officials said that 14 suspected Islamists had been arrested in a swoop linked to the plan, which allegedly was to include the use of weapons and explosives.
"An attack could be being prepared," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt warned, citing "elements" of information gathered by a team set up to coordinate Belgium's security services.
Security was tightened "in busy public places", such as the capital's underground metro system, railway stations and the international airport, as well as at Christmas markets and in shopping districts.
The interior ministry said that around 100 extra personnel had been put on duty, and that other "discreet" security steps used on occasions like European Union summits would be taken.
Patrols of two and three officers were immediately noticed on the underground and in trains, with extra attention being paid to unattended baggage.
The security measures will remain in place until January 2.
Earlier, an interior ministry official announced the adoption of the "security measures after the discovery, during a police raid, of plans for a prison breakout."
"The justice authorities did not want to take any risk and wanted to foil any possible attack," said the official, Alain Lefevre, but he underlined: "At the moment there is no indication that an attack is being prepared."
Officials said the aim was to free Nizar Trabelsi, 37, who was sentenced in 2004 to 10 years jail for planning, with other militants, an attack on a military base in Belgium where US nuclear missiles are thought to be stationed.
He was arrested on September 13, 2001, two days after the attacks in New York and Washington, in a Brussels apartment in possession of a list of chemicals which could be used to make powerful explosives.
Once a professional footballer, Trabelsi became a disciple of Osama bin Laden after they met in Afghanistan. In a television interview in November 2002, Trabelsi pledged "filial love" for the Al-Qaeda chief.
Belgium's federal prosecutor's office has requested that the 14 suspects be charged with "taking part in the activities of a terrorist group", spokeswoman Lieve Pellens said.
"Because it cannot be ruled out that this group could make other plans and because the threat level is generally higher at this time of year, the federal prosecutors office and the investigating judge decided not to take any risks and to act against this group in the widest possible manner," she said.
Those arrested "have an extreme vision of Islam and were preparing a prison breakout with weapons and explosives," said Pellens.
Lefevre urged people "to remain vigilant in Brussels", but added: "There is no reason for panic."
Belgium has never been a target for attacks in the past, but it has served as an unwitting rear-base for militants.
In 2003, a group of suspected members of a radical Moroccan Islamic group went on trial on suspicion of links to the Madrid train bombings and a series of attacks in Casablanca.
Two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Afghan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Masood was killed in a suicide bombing involving a man with a Belgian passport posing as a journalist.
Those arrested on Friday include Malika el Aroud, the widow of one of Masood's killers, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office said, adding that she was already the object of investigations.
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