Belgium authorities criticised; 13 anti-terror raids made
The Belgium government sought yesterday to contain criticism of its handling of the Brussels attacks, as investigators launched 13 anti-terror raids in the capital and two other cities and took four more people into custody.
In central Brussels, riot police used water cannon when scuffles broke out in front of the Bourse, which has become a symbolic rallying point for people to pay their respects to those who died in Tuesday's suicide bombings. Black clad men carrying an anti-Islamic State group banner with an expletive on it held an agitated rally, but were pushed back by riot police.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon conceded on Sunday that decades of neglect had hampered the government's response to violent extremism. He said that the government had invested €600 million (US$670 million) into police and security services over the last two years, but that Belgium's justice system and security services were still lagging behind.
Jambon, whose offer to resign on Thursday was declined by the prime minister, also acknowledged some shortcomings prior to the March 22 suicide bombings in Brussels that killed at least 31 people and wounded 270 others.
"There have been errors," he said on VRT television.
Jambon said that it takes time to hire anti-terror specialists and specialised equipment and insisted that the government's new investments needed time before they became visible to the public.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, said that Sunday morning's raids were linked to a "federal case regarding terrorism", but did not specify whether it had any links to the March 22 attacks.
The 13 raids were launched in the capital and the northern cities of Mechelen and Duffel. An investigating judge will decide later whether the four will remain in custody. Five were released after being questioned.
As international pressure on Belgium has mounted for serving as an unwitting rear-base for extremist fighters who launched the November 13 massacres that left 130 dead in Paris, the government has felt forced to defend its choices and the actions of investigators. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are demanding an enquiry.
Belgian police and the army have been deployed, sometimes around the clock, at major buildings and sites in the capital in increasing numbers since November, when Brussels went into lockdown over fears that top Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam had returned and was hiding there.
As it turned out, Abdeslam did return, but police did not find and arrest him until March 18, four days before suspects from his network exploded suicide bombs in Brussels.