By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — An unidentified shooter killed two people near the centre of Brussels on Monday evening (16 October), in what Belgian officials condemned as a ‘terrorist attack’, prompting the country to raise its terror threat level to 4, the highest since 2016.
Media and social media platforms aired amateur videos showing a man shooting several times near a station using a large weapon, with the gunman, who claimed to belong to the IS (Islamic State), said to be on the run.
Police said gunshots were fired near Place Sainctelette and Boulevard du Neuvième de Ligne shortly after 7 pm and patrols were immediately dispatched to the scene.
Two people were confirmed dead, Brussels police spokesperson Ilse Van de Keere said, adding that “the investigation is ongoing.” The two victims were confirmed to be Swedish nationals. A third, a taxi driver, was also fired at but is said to be out of danger.
As the events unfolded, Sweden was playing Belgium in a Euro 2024 qualifying match at the national King Baudouin Stadium in northern Brussels, which shortly after was being evacuated.
Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said Belgian authorities would be “closely following the situation, together with the Ministers of Justice and Home Affairs from the Crisis Center Belgium, a body charged with organising security response in case of a terror attack
“My deepest condolences to the relatives of this cowardly attack in Brussels. We are monitoring the situation and ask the people of Brussels to be vigilant,” De Croo said. He added that he had passed on his condolences to Sweden’s prime minister “following tonight’s harrowing attack on Swedish citizens”.
Sweden has been facing repeated Quran burnings over the past years, the latest this summer which led Stockholm to increase the country’s security threat level.
Belgium’s National Crisis Center announced it had raised the threat level for the Brussels-Capital region from 3 to 4, which is the highest level on the scale. The rest of Belgium remained at 3 on the scale of 4.
“Increased vigilance is required. Avoid unnecessary travel,” it warned in its official communication.
It is the highest since the 2016 terrorist attacks in the country, which saw coordinated twin bombings at Brussels airport and a third bomb on the city’s Maelbeek metro station on March 22, 2016.
The shooting comes at a time of increased vigilance linked to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war that has heightened tension in several European member states.
“During the evening, a statement was posted on social networks and recorded by a person claiming to be the assailant. He claimed to be inspired by the Islamic State [ISIS],” Eric van Duyse, spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office, told Belgian TV RTBF on Monday night.
“In the same statement, the victims’ Swedish nationality was mentioned as a probable motive for the act. At this stage, there is no evidence of any connection with the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” van Duyse said, in reference to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
Over the weekend, France raised its alert level to the highest after a teacher was killed in an Islamist stabbing attack.
Following the Brussels incident, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced France would strengthen its border controls with Belgium, according to AFP.
“After France, Belgium was once again hit by Islamist terrorism. Our thoughts are with the victims, their families and loved ones. We must remain standing, vigilant and firm in the face of this permanent threat,” Belgium’s EU Commissioner Didier Reynders wrote on X.
Belgian’s Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said she was “horrified” by the “terror attack”. “All necessary means must be mobilised to combat radicalism,” Lahbib wrote on X.
Belgium’s Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and De Croo are currently at the National Crisis Center, near the prime minister’s office in the Belgian capital, a spokesperson said.
Brussels Mayor Philippe Close said that “following the shooting in Brussels, the police services are mobilizing to guarantee safety in and around our capital” in collaboration with the country’s interior ministry.