Anti-terror police in Belgium raided a town east of Brussels on Thursday, killing two terror suspects in a dramatic shootout that was part of a crackdown on Islamic extremists returning from Syria. Belgian federal prosecutor spokesman Eric Van der Sypt said at a news conference that police carried out the operation in the town of Verviers, 75 miles west of Brussels, against a cell of suspected terrorists who were planning an attack. He said two of the suspects died and a third was detained.
Van der Sypt said the suspects, armed with heavy weapons, opened fire on the security forces who carried out the raid. Officials said there were no casualties among the security forces involved in the operation. The German public television network ZDF reported that the operation was part of a broader initiative targeting Islamists believed to have taken part in the Syrian civil war.
Other raids on the homes of men who'd returned from Syria were conducted across the country, prosecutors said. The men were suspected of planning attacks on Belgian police stations.
Several of those counterterrorism operations occurred in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Brussels, according to reports in Belgian media. There was also a second operation in Verviers later in the day. But authorities found no weapons and arrested no suspects in those other raids, Belgian officials quoted in local media said. But police activity was still ongoing in parts of Brussels.
The raids came a week after attacks by Islamic militants in France killed 17 and sparked fears of more young radicalized Muslim immigrants launching attacks in Europe. But officials told Reuters that the Belgium investigation began before the French attacks, and there were no obvious links between them.
Earlier Thursday, Belgian authorities said they were examining possible links between a man they arrested in the city of Charleroi for illegal trade in weapons and Amedy Coulibaly, the alleged gunman who killed four people in a kosher market in Paris last week.
In response to Thursday's raid, Belgium's terror alert level was raised to its second-highest level. The small European country has seen significant radical Islamist activity among its Muslim population. Local media said gunshots and several explosions were heard on a residential street in Verviers near the railway station and one photo posted by a witness on Twitter showed police vehicles and ambulances blocking the street.