Brussels attack suspect shot at cafe after possible terrorist act

Brussels attack suspect shot at cafe after possible terrorist act

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BRUSSELS — Police fatally shot the gunman who killed two people in the Belgian capital in a terrorist attack, authorities said Tuesday, ending a manhunt that had left the city on edge, but doing little to ease fears of an uptick in political violence across Europe.

The attack in Brussels came days after a teacher was fatally stabbed at French high school in what authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack. And countries across Europe have been on guard for political violence that might spill over from the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Monday’s attack in Brussels targeted three Swedish nationals, killing two and wounding one, on an evening when Sweden was playing Belgium in a Europe 2024 qualifier soccer match. That game was suspended and the city put on high alert while police searched for the attacker.

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“Last night, three people left for what was supposed to be a wonderful soccer party. Two of them lost their lives in a brutal terrorist attack,” Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at an early morning news conference. “Their lives were cut short in full flight, cut down by extreme brutality.”

De Croo said the attacker was Tunisian and had been “staying illegally in our country.” Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said the man had been denied asylum in 2019 and had been previously suspected of involvement of human trafficking and being a risk to state security. He suggested the attacker may have targeted nationals of Sweden because of Quran burnings there, which have led to threats and protests.

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In a video that emerged after the shooting, a man claimed responsibility for the attack and identified himself as a member of the Islamic State extremist group — though Belgium’s federal prosecutor said he was probably a lone wolf.

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said that the high school stabbing suspect, who was appearing in court on Tuesday, had similarly declared allegiance to the Islamic State.

On the attacks happening in quick succession, French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday that “all European states are vulnerable” to a return of terrorist violence.

“We all have a vulnerability. It’s what comes with being a democracy, a rule-of-law state where there are individuals who can decide at a given moment to commit the worst acts,” Macron told reporters while visiting the Albanian capital, Tirana, according to Agence France-Presse.

Although neither of the attacks appears to have strong links to the war between Israel and Hamas, many European capitals have heighten their security over concern that conflict will spur violence in their own countries. In recent days, cultural landmarks in France and schools in multiple countries have received bomb threats, while authorities reported a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Since Hamas launched its attack on Israel, the European Union has conveyed conflicting messages — over whether aid to Palestinians should continue, over whether Israel needs to emphasize restraint — inviting criticism from all sides.

“The E.U. will have little ability to influence events unfolding in Israel and Gaza but could be seriously impacted by them,” wrote Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.

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The incidents, he continued in his note, “point to the societal and stability risks that, if repeated, could feed right-wing populists ahead of European elections next year.”

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson — who leads a center-right coalition but has support from the far right — emphasized in his remarks on Tuesday a need to strengthen border controls and other security within the E.U.

“This is a time for more security; we can’t be naive,” he said in a news conference.

Both France and Belgium have denied that security lapses contributed to the recent attacks in their countries.

Although Belgian officials said the man had a criminal record and was known by local authorities, federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said, “We did not have indications that the person needed to be watched.”

The suspect in France had likewise been known to security authorities — French intelligence officials had been wiretapping his conversations and had interacted with him a day before, but said they had no evidence on which to detain him before the stabbing.

For France and Belgium, the attacks are a reminder of a spate of terrorist violence in 2015 and 2016. In July, six men were found guilty for their roles in a 2016 attack that killed 32 and injured hundreds in Brussels. A year before that assault, a team of gunmen claiming allegiance to the Islamic State carried out attacks in Paris that killed over 100 people.

Despite measures put in place to stop that kind of attack from happening again, the attacker on Monday managed to kill two people and escape the scene of the crime, sowing fear across the city.

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In the hours after the shootings on Monday, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office urged people to “go home and stay at home as long as the threat has not been eradicated.”

The Swedish and Belgian soccer teams, consulting with local authorities, decided to abandon their match midgame, according to the UEFA, the soccer league. After putting the stadium on lockdown, police helped evacuate fans.

He remained at large overnight. According to the federal prosecutor’s office, a witness called Brussels police at 8 a.m. Tuesday to say the suspect in the shootings was sitting in a cafe. “The police arrived at the scene and during the intervention, the suspect was shot,” a statement said. “The emergency services also arrived at the scene and tried to resuscitate the man.”

Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden told Belgian broadcaster VRT that the man was shot in a cafe in the Schaerbeek district and that the weapon found nearby was the same one used in the attack the night before.

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