Soldiers patrol Brussels, raids lead to arrests

A Belgian soldier patrols in Brussels' Grand Place as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

A Belgian soldier patrols in Brussels’ Grand Place as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Gabriela Baczynska and Philip Blenkinsop 
November 23, 2015

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Soldiers patrolled the streets of Brussels and police detained five more people on the third day of a security lockdown on Monday, as Belgium hunted a suspected Islamist militant who has been on the run since the attacks in Paris.

Authorities are still warning of possible imminent attacks like those in the French capital this month, in which 130 people were killed, and hunting Brussels barkeeper Salah Abdeslam, who returned to the city from Paris hours after the Nov. 13 attacks.

Police did not find Abdeslam, whose brother blew himself up in Paris, in 22 raids late on Sunday when 16 people were detained. Five more people were arrested during searches of seven houses in the Brussels and Liege regions early on Monday.

Police have given no details of those held. No weapons were found on Sunday but 26,000 euros in cash, found at a single site, was seized by prosecutors.

The metro, museums, most cinemas and many shops will stay shut on Monday in the usually bustling EU capital where many staff have opted to work from home. There was also no school or university for almost 300,000 students.

On the Grand Place, a historic central square that usually draws crowds of tourists, an armoured military vehicle was parked under an illuminated Christmas tree.

NATO, which had raised its alert level since the Paris attacks, said its headquarters in the city were open, but some of its 1,000 staff had been asked to work from home and external visits had been cancelled.

EU institutions, which employ some 21,000 people in Brussels, were also open with the soldiers patrolling outside.

Belgian police officers arrest a man during a continued high level security situation following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 22, 2015. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Belgian police officers arrest a man during a continued high level security situation following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 22, 2015. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

“SERIOUS AND IMMINENT”

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the city of 1.2 million will remain on Belgium’s fourth and highest level of security threat, meaning the threat of an attack was “serious and imminent”.

“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” he told a news conference.

Authorities were due to review the situation again on Monday afternoon.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon told RTL radio, however, that Belgium’s capital was still operating. “Apart from the closed metro and schools, life goes on in Brussels, the public sector is open for business today, many companies are open,” Jambon said on Monday morning.

The city’s buses were running normally and many shops in the suburbs were open.

Workers were also setting up stalls for the city centre Christmas market, which is due to open on Friday, and local organisers of the Davis Cup tennis final between Belgium and Britain in the city of Ghent, 55 km (35 miles) to the west of the capital, said it would go ahead this weekend.

Germany has kept security along its border with Belgium at a high level since the Paris attacks, a German police spokesman said after media reports that Abdeslam was spotted near the frontier.

Belgian soldiers and police patrol in central Brussels on November 22, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian soldiers and police patrol in central Brussels on November 22, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Yves Herman

REPORTED SIGHTINGS

Several Belgian media carried unsourced reports saying he had been seen in a car near the eastern city of Liege heading towards Germany. There have been numerous reported sightings in recent days.

However, Belgian prosecutors said on Monday that a BMW car that failed to stop for a routine check near Liege, close to the German border, had been found and inquiries showed there was no link to the Paris attacks investigation.

Shares on the Brussels stock exchange initially dipped, but had recovered by mid-session. The Bel-20 blue-chip index, which includes brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev <ABI.BR> and chemicals group Solvay <SOLB.BR>, was up 0.1 percent at 1300 GMT.

ING economist Philippe Ledent noted the biggest companies’ business was international and therefore the global situation was more important to them. “For smaller companies active mostly in Belgium, they will have business in the rest of the country which is less affected,” he said. “If this is limited in terms of days, in terms of area, it’s not so much of a problem.”

Belgium has been at the heart of investigations into the Paris attacks after French law enforcement bodies said two of the suicide bombers had lived there. Three people have been charged in Belgium with terrorist offences, including two who travelled back with Abdeslam from Brussels.

Among those who decided to go out on Monday was Zineb Toubarhi, a business engineering student in Brussels, who was waiting to catch a bus on a frosty morning.

“I am going to my friends’ place to look after their children today. They must go to work and the schools are closed. I’ve had classes cancelled at the university so I will help them,” she said.

“It feels strange to see armed soldiers in the streets but this is for our security. So, I don’t know why, but I am not afraid.”

(Additional reporting by Matthias Inverardi; editing by Jan Strupczewski, Louise Ireland and David Stamp)

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Council headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yve Herman

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Council headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yve Herman

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Europe needs access to SWIFT data to combat militants — France 

PARIS (Reuters) – European authorities need to be able to tap into data from the SWIFT bank payments network as part of a push to clamp down on the financing of militant groups, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said on Monday.

Sapin said that the SWIFT system had two computer servers, one in Europe and one in the United States, but that Europe currently relied on U.S. authorities to collect and analyse the vast amounts of data flowing through it to detect security issues.

“We Europeans don’t have the capacity to exploit our own data. I don’t think this can carry on this way,” Sapin told a news conference. “Since we do not have the means to analyse the data located in Europe, we transfer all of this data to the Americans, who have the capacity to analyse it.”

Efforts to curb financing of militant groups have intensified since the attacks in Paris on Nov. 13 by Islamic State-backed gunmen and bombers.

Belgian-based SWIFT, or Society for the Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, operates services transmitting letters of credit, payments and securities transactions among 9,700 banks in 209 countries.

SWIFT says on its website that it is subject to binding requests to provide the U.S. Treasury with data from its European server “for the purpose of the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of terrorism or terrorist financing”.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; Writing by Leigh Thomas; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Stamp)

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A woman passes a closed cafe in Brussels, November 23, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

A woman passes a closed cafe in Brussels, November 23, 2015, after security was tightened in Belgium following the fatal attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Brussels lockdown hurts business

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – At the end of what usually is a busy lunchtime with customers from nearby offices flocking to his leather goods store in one of Brussels’ main shopping streets, manager Karen Arkelyan planned to close early on Monday.

“This is catastrophic, really very bad. We only had two or three tourists randomly walk in today. Most things are closed around here because of the security threat, people work from home, there are no buyers,” he said.

His shop lies on the Chaussee d’Ixelles in central Brussels, the Belgian and European Union capital that has been in a security lock down since Saturday over what the authorities say is a “serious and imminent” threat of an attack akin to the Nov. 13 one in Paris that left 130 people dead.

With metro system, schools, universities, shopping malls, museums, cinemas, many restaurants and shops closed in Brussels, a city of 1.2 million, business people worry about the economic costs of the tightened security.

Shops as well as tourist attractions – hotels, restaurants, museums and other culture venues – have so far been affected most visibly.

“It’s worse than the economic impact the attacks had on Paris itself. It’s the psychological effect, people are anxious, they are expecting something to happen,” said Olivier Willocx, head of the Beci chamber of commerce, which has 30,000 companies as members.

“In Paris, they want to show they have survived, that their lives go on. Here it is the opposite: it didn’t happen and people fear it will,” he said, adding that some downtown Brussels hotels saw 40 percent of bookings for last weekend cancelled at the last minute.

Some tourists, especially from the United States, were calling off visits planned as long ago as February, he said.

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Commission headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Commission headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

TOURISM HURT

The lockdown comes on the eve of the Christmas tourist season that usually starts in December, a vital period for the city’s around 150 hotels. Brussels’ main Christmas fair, which attracts around a million people, is due to open on Nov. 27.

“If it only is Saturday-Monday, the businesses can handle it. If you can’t get your jeans today, you will get them next week. Museums will have a worse day or two but it will be manageable in the end,” said Sanderijn Vanleenhove, spokeswoman for the UNIZO association, which has 85,000 members among small and medium enterprises in Brussels and Flanders.

“But if it goes on for several more days or weeks – it’ll become very problematic,” she said.

Brussels had 3.3 million visitors in 2013 as tourism rebounded after a flat 2012, largely because of improving consumer and business confidence and a wider economic recovery from the financial crisis. The industry grew again in 2014, according to Brussels’ tourism office.

“We are in a recovery situation,” said ING economist Philippe Ledent. “If it’s just an emotion, it’s not a real problem. But if it is long-lasting, then there could be a deeper impact on consumer confidence and then on private consumption.”

The problem was visible at Chaussee d’Ixelles, where between a third and a half of shops were open at lunchtime on Monday. Major international companies from French book and music retailer FNAC to fashion giant H&M were closed.

McDonald’s was open – its entrance guarded by three soldiers – and some smaller or private shops were also open.

“Usually by the end of lunchtime on Monday we get 12 or 14 customers. We maybe had 3 today,” said a staff member at a small Oxfam charity shop in the same street. “This is hard.”

EXPATS AND PRALINES

The two largest cinemas in Brussels were closed over the weekend and on Monday, as was the Atomium museum, a massive stainless steel construction offering a panoramic view of the city.

Britain’s Davis Cup team with Andy Murray delayed their departure to Belgium over security but the tennis tournament is still due to take place in Ghent, 55 km (35 miles) from Brussels.

Brussels has a large expatriate community tied to the European Union and NATO, amounting to about 120,000 people, or a tenth of the entire city population.

The European Council cancelled most of its meetings on Monday, with only a meeting of finance ministers of euro zone members going ahead. The European Commission said staff were told it would work normally, though with additional security measures.

NATO headquarters were open but some of its 4,000 staff were asked to work from home and external visits were cancelled.

But there was some good news back in Chaussee d’Ixelles. A shop run by Leonidas, the Belgian praline manufacturer, saw just as many customers as on any other day, said sales assistant Kevin: “We are positively surprised. Maybe people just need their chocolate.”

(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop, Robin Emmott and Francesco Guarascio; editing by Giles Elgood)

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Council headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian soldiers patrol outside the European Council headquarters as police searched the area during a continued high level of security following the recent deadly Paris attacks, in Brussels, Belgium, November 23, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Paris attack suspect Abdeslam in Italy in August

Handout picture shows Belgian-born Abdeslam Salah seen on a call for witnesses notice released by the French Police Nationale information services on their twitter account November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Police Nationale/Handout via Reuters

Handout picture shows Belgian-born Abdeslam Salah seen on a call for witnesses notice released by the French Police Nationale information services on their twitter account November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Police Nationale/Handout via Reuters

BARI, Italy (Reuters) – Suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam travelled through Italy in August with a companion, but his presence caused no alarm because he was not a wanted man at the time, an investigative source said on Monday.

His companion was Ahmet Dahmani, a Belgian man of Moroccan origin who was arrested in Turkey last week on suspicion of involvement in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, the source said.

Separately, prosecutors in the southern Italian city of Bari have opened an investigation into suspected Islamist militants who passed through the port on about five different occasions between February and August on their way to Greece, another investigative source said.

This investigation has no apparent connection to the Paris attacks, the source said. Prosecutors suspect that militants, using false documents, are travelling through Italy en route to Syria.

The cases show the difficulties of policing and collecting intelligence in the 28-member European Union, where each country’s security forces work independently and have different priorities.

Abdeslam is a French citizen and could therefore travel freely between countries in the European Union’s Schengen area, where there are no border controls.

Since the attacks, some countries have imposed temporary controls and there have been calls for the borderless system to be scrapped.

Abdeslam, whose brother blew himself up in the Paris attacks, has been on the run since the assault that killed 130 and is the focus of a massive manhunt.

He boarded a ferry in the south-eastern Italian port of Bari on Aug. 1 en route to Patras, Greece, the source said, with another man. Abdeslam returned from Patras to Bari by ferry on Aug. 5. The source gave no further details.

In an interview with an Italian Web site on Monday, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano confirmed Abdeslam had passed through Italy.

“The point is that they were citizens with European passports and … they were not wanted” by police, Alfano said.

(Reporting by Vincenzo Damiani in Bari; writing by Steve Scherer in Rome; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Giles Elgood)

Copyright Reuters 2015

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