Raf Casert and Frank Augstein, AP, January 15, 2015
Belgian security forces killed two terror suspects with links to Syria in a fierce shootout in the eastern city of Verviers on Thursday and arrested another, foiling a major and imminent attack against police buildings, authorities said.
Belgian federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt said in Brussels that there was no link at this stage between the Paris attacks and the Belgian operation, which he said is the result of an investigation that has been underway for a few weeks.
The suspects immediately opened fire on police when they closed in on them near the city’s train station, he said. There was an intense firefight for several minutes on an upper level of a building in Verviers where the raid took place, which appears to be residential.
“These were extremely well-armed men” with automatic weapons, Van der Sypt said. Police buildings were the target of an attack expected within hours or days, he said.
“We still expect a number of arrests,” he said. No police were wounded or killed in the firefight, which occurred at the height of rush hour in a crowded neighborhood. Verviers, a former industrial town with about 56,000 residents including a large immigrant community, is about 125 kilometers (80 miles) southeast of the capital, Brussels.
The magistrate said more anti-terrorist raids were underway in the Brussels region, 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.
Earlier Thursday, Belgian authorities said they are looking into possible links between a man they arrested in the southern city of Charleroi for illegal trade in weapons and Amedy Coulibaly, who prosecutors say killed four people in a Paris kosher market last week.
Defense officials said Thursday that France was under an unprecedented cyber assault with 19,000 cyberattacks launched after the country’s bloodiest terrorist attacks in decades, frustrating authorities as they try to thwart repeat violence.
Around 120,000 security forces are deployed to prevent future attacks.
Calling it an unprecedented surge, Adm. Arnaud Coustilliere, head of cyberdefense for the French military, said about 19,000 French websites had faced cyberattacks in recent days, some carried out by well-known Islamic hacker groups.
The attacks, mostly relatively minor denial-of-service attacks, hit sites as varied as military regiments to pizza shops but none appeared to have caused serious damage, he said. Military authorities launched round-the-clock surveillance to protect the government sites still coming under attack.