BRUSSELS (CBSNewYork/AP) — Belgian security forces killed two terror suspects in a fierce shootout in the eastern city of Verviers on Thursday and arrested another, foiling a major attack against police buildings, authorities said.
The suspects immediately opened fire on police 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.READ MORE: Biden Says Omicron Variant Is 'Cause For Concern, Not A Cause For Panic'
“These were extremely well-armed men” with automatic weapons, Van der Sypt said. Police buildings were the target, and an attack had been expected in hours or days, he said.
There was an intense firefight for several minutes on an upper level of a building in Verviers where the raid took place. The building where the raid took place is multistory and appears to be residential.
“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.
The magistrate said more anti-terrorist raids were underway 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.
Verviers is a former industrial town with a large immigrant population about 80 miles southeast of the capital, Brussels.
Witnesses speaking on Belgium’s RTBF radio described a series of explosions followed by rapid fire at the center of Verviers, near a bakery and in the neighborhood of the train station. Video posted online of what appeared to be the raid showed a dark view of a building amid blasts, gunshots and sirens, and a fire with smoke billowing up.
In New York City, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the incident underscores the challenges counterterrorism officers here are facing.READ MORE: NYC 'Strongly Recommends' Masks In Public Indoor Spaces, As Omicron Variant Reaches North America
“That does exemplify what we’ve constantly been talking about, the potential of the lone wolf,” Bratton said. “Particularly, in the year I’ve been commissioner, the threat has morphed from the focus on al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Yemen, which appears to have been responsible for the Paris assault. ISIS, which nobody knew about a year ago, now has emerged, has created, for lack of a better term, a state in the middle of the Mideast. Those two entities seem to be competing with each other for attention.
“There’s no city in America that has more resources committed to this issue than New York,” Bratton added. “Many cities around the country don’t have the resources to stay as involved as we do. We remain one of the most likely targets in the country, if not the world, so we have to keep committing resources to this issue. And we are very good at it, and we have excellent relationships with our federal colleagues, who are also very good at it.”
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.
The man arrested in Belgium “claims that he wanted to buy a car from the wife of Coulibaly,” said federal prosecutor’s spokesman, Eric Van der Sypt. “At this moment this is the only link between what happened in Paris.” Van der Sypt said that “of course, naturally” we are continuing the investigation.
At first the man came to police himself claiming there had been contact with Coulibaly’s common law wife regarding the car, but he was arrested following a search on his premises when enough indications of illegal weapons trade were found.
Van der Sypt stressed there was no established weapons link with the Paris attack at this moment.
Several countries are now involved in the hunt for possible accomplices to Coulibaly and the two other gunmen in the French attacks.
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