Belgium anti-terror sweep over 'imminent' attack fears

Brussels (AFP) - Belgian authorities on Saturday charged three men with "attempted terrorist murder" after raiding dozens of homes in raids linked to a reported threat to fans during a Euro 2016 football game.

Named by prosecutors as Samir C., Moustapha B. et Jawad B., the trio were among 12 people detained during the overnight raids, hours before thousands of people gathered around screens to watch Belgium play Ireland.

The three have also been charged with "participation in the activities of a terrorist group", while the nine others were released after questioning, prosecutors added.

The areas searched included neighbourhoods in Brussels where November's jihadist attacks in Paris and the Brussels suicide bombings in March had planned their assaults.

Prosecutors said they were responding to a need for "an immediate intervention".

Flemish commercial broadcaster VTM reported that the swoop was connected to a threat linked to Belgium's fixture against Ireland, held Saturday afternoon in Bordeaux, France.

No incidents were immediately reported after the match which ended with a 3-0 defeat for the Irish, sending Belgians into the streets in celebration.

"Over the coming hours we are going to take additional and updated security measures," Prime Minister Charles Michel said after a national security council meeting to discuss the threat.

Public events planned for the coming days would go ahead, he said, including those linked to the Euro championships.

"We want to continue living normally," the premier said.

- 'Fan zones targeted' -

Forty people were initially detained and 152 garages searched in Friday night's raids in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.

VTM said the threat was chiefly to public fan zones where supporters follow Euro games on giant screens.

The raids "passed off without incident," prosecutors said in a statement, adding that no arms or explosives were found.

Belgium is still reeling from the Islamic State suicide bombings at Brussels airport and on the city's metro on March 22 which killed 32 people and wounded hundreds more.

Officers in Flanders moved on the town of Zaventem close to Brussels airport, while in the capital there were raids in the suburbs of Molenbeek, Schaarbeek and Forest, all closely associated with the perpetrators of both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

Molenbeek is notorious for being a hotbed of Islamic extremism where Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving member of the 10-man jihadist team that attacked Paris, killing 130 people, hid out for months until his dramatic arrest on March 18.

One of the searches in Wallonia was conducted in the area of Fleurus close to Charleroi airport, a region that also hosts nuclear power facilities.

- VIP security boosted -

Euro 2016 host France is on maximum alert after an assailant previously convicted for jihadism knifed a police officer and his partner to death in the Paris suburbs on Monday.

In Belgium, the latest raids have raised tensions in a country already dogged by the threat of terrorism.

Belgian media reported Wednesday that police had warned that IS fighters had recently left Syria to carry out attacks.

"They would separate into two groups, one for Belgium, the other for France, to attack in pairs," an official document revealed by the La Derniere Heure newspaper stated, describing the threat as "imminent".

On Saturday, a source close to Belgian authorities confirmed to AFP that several leading political figures have recently had their security increased.

According to state broadcaster RTBF and daily Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, 30 people and their families have had their personal security stepped up since Friday, including the prime minister, interior minister and justice minister.

Despite the disclosures, Belgium's terror level remains at level three meaning that an attack is considered "possible and probable". The highest, level four, would mean the threat is "serious and imminent".

Belgian media also reported Saturday that a 30-year-old man charged Friday in connection with the Brussels attacks had worked at the city's airport.

The suspect, named as Youssef E.A., worked for an airline catering company and had access to planes on the tarmac, Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad and several French-language titles reported.

Investigators found messages from metro bomber Khalid El Bakraoui on his computer, according to media, mentioning flights to the US, Russia and Israel.

The federal prosecutor's office declined to confirm the reports.

The man was charged Friday with "participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist murders and attempts to commit terrorist murders, as a perpetrator, co-perpetrator or accomplice".

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