Belgian police killed two men who opened fire on them during one of about a dozen raids Thursday against an Islamist group that federal prosecutors said was about to launch “terrorist attacks on a grand scale.”
Coming a week after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, the incident heightened fears across Europe of young local Muslims returning radicalized from Syria. But prosecutors’ spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt said the probe began before the Jan. 7 attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
A third man was detained in the eastern city of Verviers, where police commandos ran into a hail of gunfire after trying to gain entry to an apartment above a bakery. All three were citizens of Belgium, which has one of the biggest concentrations of European Islamists fighting in Syria.
Other raids on the homes of men returned from the war there were conducted across the country, Van Der Sypt said, adding that they were suspected of planning attacks on Belgian police stations. Security had been tightened at such sites.
“The searches were carried out as part of an investigation into an operational cell some of whose members had returned from Syria,” he said. “For the time being, there is no connection with the attacks in Paris.”
Earlier in the day, prosecutors said they had detained a man in southern Belgium whom they suspected of supplying weaponry to Amedy Coulibaly, killer of four people at a Paris Jewish grocery after the Charlie Hebdo attack.
After the violence in Verviers, La Meuse newspaper quoted an unidentified police officer as saying: “We’ve averted a Belgian Charlie Hebdo.”
Public television RTBF showed video of a building at night lit up by flames, with the sound of shots being fired. Per head of population, Belgium is the European country from where the highest number of citizens have taken part in fighting in Syria in the past four years, data compiled by security researchers have shown.
Brussels believes about 100 of its nationals have come back from there, while a further 40 may have been killed and about 170 are still in the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Belgium is part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS and has six F-16 aircraft taking part in bombing raids on Syria and Iraq.