Brussels: Belgium stepped up its efforts against suspected terrorists on Thursday with police raids, arrests and a heightened alert level across the country. Two suspects were killed in a gunbattle near the German border, and the authorities said that a man suspected of links to last week's deadly terror attacks in Paris had been arrested in southern Belgium.
The gunbattle happened in Verviers, a town about 75 miles east of Brussels. The police were closing in on several suspects there in the early evening when they were met with bursts of semi-automatic gunfire, according to Eric Van Der Sypt, the state prosecutor. After several minutes, he said, the shooters were "neutralized," with two suspects dead and a third wounded and in custody. No police officers or civilians were wounded, he said.
Officials who briefed reporters at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday evening declined to give many details about the raid, citing a continuing investigation. But they said that the terror alert level for the country had been raised to 3 on a 4-point scale.
Van Der Sypt said at the news conference that the police raids on Thursday were focused on "several people who we think are an operational cell - certain people who came back from Syria."
"During the investigation, we found that this group was about to commit terrorist attacks in Belgium," he said, adding that the group's targets were the Belgian police.
"For the time being, there is no connection with what happened in Paris," he said.
Earlier in the day, Van Der Sypt said the authorities had a man in custody who had been arrested the day before in Charleroi, south of Brussels, on suspicion of arms dealing. The man surrendered to police on Wednesday after a police raid there on Tuesday.
Van Der Sypt said in a telephone interview before the raid in Verviers that the authorities were investigating whether the activities of the man in Charleroi were linked to the attacks in and near Paris last week. "For the moment, we certainly can't confirm a link," he said.
Neither was there any direct link between the raids in Charleroi and Verviers, he said.
Belgian news outlets reported that the police had evidence that the man had arranged a sale of ammunition to Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who killed four people and held others hostage at a kosher supermarket in Paris on Friday until French special operations forces stormed the market and shot him dead.
Van Der Sypt said at the news conference that a judge who specializes in handling terrorism cases had issued about 10 search warrants for the raids on Thursday, which were carried out in Brussels and in the surrounding Halle-Vilvoorde district, as well as Verviers.
He said the Belgian authorities had been monitoring the suspects involved in those raids for weeks - starting "before the attacks in Paris, I would like to stress." The suspects were all Belgian citizens, he said, but he declined to comment on their origins or on their activities in Syria.
The raids in Brussels and Halle-Vilvoorde were still in progress, Van Der Sypt said. He promised further updates on Friday morning.
© 2015, The New York Times News Service