By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Belgian authorities say 16 people were arrested in the Brussels region late on November 22 during police raids linked their investigation of the November 13 Paris terrorist attacks.
Belgian prosecutors said early on November 23 that a key suspect in the case, French-born militant Salah Abdelslam, was “not among those arrested during the searches.”
Belgian officials would not release details about the identities of those detained, nor specific charges against the suspects, “in the interest of the investigation” while security operations are continuing.
The late-night raids included 19 house searches in the Brussels region as well as three house searches in Charleroi, a city in southern Belgium’s Wallonia region.
Brussels remains on its highest alert level as a result of what Belgium’s prime minister has called a “serious and imminent” threat of coordinated, multiple attacks by Islamist extremists.
The Level 4 security alert was declared on November 21.
“What we fear is an attack similar to the one in Paris, with several individuals who could also possibly launch several attacks at the same time in multiple locations,” Prime Minister Charles Michel told reporters in Brussels earlier on November 22.
Possible targets were commercial centers, shopping streets, or public transport, he said.
The city’s subway system will stay closed and all schools and universities will be shut on November 23, Michel said following a meeting of the national security council to review the situation in the country.
For the rest of the country, a threat level of three on a four-tier scale would stay in place, Michel said.
He said a new evaluation of the situation would be made on November 23 in the afternoon while adding that and everything was being done to return the city to normal as quickly as possible.
The Belgian capital’s subway network has been closed for the weekend and major events like soccer matches have been canceled.
Extra security has been deployed on trains, in railway stations, and at airports.
The mayor of Brussels also ordered restaurants and cafes across the city to close on the night of November 21, along with shopping centers and public buildings.
Michel said there was “quite precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris,” referring to the November 13 attacks that killed 130 people and hundreds injured.
Islamic State militants claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, and Brussels has been at the center of investigations since it emerged that two Paris suicide bombers had been living in Belgium.
Suspected Paris gunman Salah Abdeslam, a 26-year-old French citizen thought to be one of the ringleaders of the Paris attacks, is still at large.
Media reports suggested the heightened terror threat was linked to concerns that Abdeslam is hiding in the Brussels area.
But Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the current threat was greater than that posed by Abdeslam.
“It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person,” he said in an interview with Flemish broadcaster VRT.
“We’re looking at more things, that’s why we’ve put in place such a concentration of resources.”
Another alleged ringleader of the Paris attacks, 28-year-old Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was a Belgian of Moroccan origin.
He was killed during a raid by French security forces in a Paris suburb on November 18.
Belgium has filed criminal charges against three of its citizens who were detained in Paris in connection with the attacks.
Michel said security officials fear that “several individuals with arms and explosives could launch an attack…perhaps even in several places.”
“We urge the public not to give in to panic,” Michel said, adding that “we have taken the measures that are necessary.”
Brussels police said they discovered a laboratory for the production of explosives during a raid in the capital on November 21.
Weapons were also discovered at the site, but no explosives or suicide belts were found.
Police added that three people have been detained, but did not provide details.
Outside of Brussels, the rest of Belgium remains on a Level 3 security alert.
Officials around the world are investigating the mostly French and Belgian network thought to have carried out the Paris attacks with help from Islamist extremists in Syria.
On November 21, police in Turkey detained three suspected terrorists — including a Belgian citizen, Moroccan-born Ahmet Dahmani, who is suspected of having scouted out locations for the Paris attacks as part of the planning.
Brussels, a city of more than 1 million people, hosts the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, as well as many large corporations.