Police on Tuesday shot dead a suspected Tunisian extremist accused of gunning down two Swedish soccer fans in a brazen assault on a Brussels street that sent shockwaves through Belgium and Sweden. Hours after the suspect disappeared into the night and a manhunt was launched in the Belgian capital, Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Brussels has been identified and has died.”
She thanked Belgium’s intelligence and security services, as well as prosecutors, “for their swift and decisive action.” The man was shot in the Schaerbeek neighborhood near where the rampage took place. The weapon used in the assault was recovered.
Amateur videos posted on social media of Monday’s attack showed a man wearing an orange fluorescent vest pull up on a scooter, take out a large weapon and open fire on people getting out of a taxi. He chased them into a building to gun them down. He was also filmed calmly loading his weapon as cars drove slowly by.
Questions remain unanswered over how a man who was on police files, thought to be radicalized and being sought for deportation was able to obtain a military weapon and launch such an attack. “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 a news conference just before dawn. “Their lives were cut short in full flight, cut down by extreme brutality.”
“The attack that was launched yesterday was committed with total cowardice,” he said. Security was beefed up in Brussels, particularly around places linked to the Swedish community, and at Belgium’s southern border with France. Not far from the scene of the shooting, the Belgium-Sweden soccer match in the national stadium was suspended at halftime and over 35,000 fans were kept inside as a precaution while the attacker was at large.
Caroline Lochs, a fan from Antwerp, said the alarm left her feeling “frustrated, confused, scared. I think everyone was quite scared.” At a news conference in Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that “everything indicates this is a terrorist attack against Sweden and Swedish citizens, just because they are Swedish.” He said the suspect had occasionally stayed in Sweden but was not on police files there.
“It’s not an unusual pattern to move around,” Kristersson added. “We have an openness in Europe, which is one of the important reasons why we need to keep an eye on the EU’s external border because otherwise people can easily move between European countries.”
Kristersson has been invited to Brussels to mourn the victims and pay tribute to the work of police at a commemoration ceremony on Wednesday, De Croo announced on X, saying: “We wish the people of Sweden strength and courage to get through these difficult times.”
Sweden’s foreign ministry said the two fatalities were men aged in their sixties and seventies. A third man, also in his seventies, was wounded and remains in hospital. De Croo said the assailant was a Tunisian man living illegally in Belgium who used a military weapon in the attack.
Federal prosecutors said later that the suspect was found after a witness spotted him in a Schaerbeek cafe. Police arrived at the scene and the suspect was shot as they tried to arrest him. First responders attempted to save the man, but he later died in hospital. “A military weapon and a bag of clothes were found,” a statement said.
Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw described how the suspect, a 45-year-old man who wasn’t identified, had posted a video online claiming to have killed three Swedish people. The suspect is alleged to have said in the video that, for him, the Quran was “a red line for which he is ready to sacrifice himself.”
Sweden raised its terror alert to the second-highest level in August after a series of public Quran burnings by an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden resulted in threats from Islamic militant groups. Asked if this were a possible motive, federal prosecutor Eric Van Duyse told The Associated Press that it’s too early to tell. “The connection seems easy to make, but we must have evidence, we must have proof.” Prosecutors have said that nothing suggests the attack was linked to the war between Israel and Hamas.
According to Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, the suspect was denied asylum in 2019. He was known to police and had been suspected of involvement of human trafficking, living illegally in Belgium and of being a risk to state security.
Information provided to the Belgian authorities by an unidentified foreign government suggested that the man had been radicalized and intended to travel abroad to fight in a holy war. But the Belgian authorities were not able to establish this, so he was never listed as dangerous. Belgian Asylum State Secretary Nicole de Moor said the man disappeared after his asylum application was refused so the authorities were unable to locate him to organize his deportation.
A terror alert for Brussels was raised overnight to 4, the top of Belgium’s scale, indicating an extremely serious threat. It previously stood at 2, which means the threat was average. The alert level for the rest of the country was raised to 3.
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