At least two were killed and another held in custody following a counter-terror police raid in Verviers, Belgium, said Belgian Federal Prosecutor Eric van der Sypt at a Thursday press conference. Van der Sypt also said the group targeted in the raid was poised to carry out looming major terrorist attacks in the country.
Federal prosecutors and police held the emergency news conference after the raid, as Belgian authorities were investigating possible links to last week's French terror attacks that saw the deaths of 12 Charlie Hebdo staff and a number of people held hostage at a kosher supermarket in Paris, as well as three gunmen with alleged connections to Al Qaeda.
Van der Sypt said that the suspects targeted in the operation were under surveillance since their recent return from Syria, in perhaps the first troubling sign of the return of jihadists from abroad. CNN's Jim Sciutto reported that what began as an "inspection" of suspected extremist Islamists quickly became a shootout when the suspects opened fire on Belgian security forces. The federal prosecutor noted:
The suspects immediately and for several minutes opened fire with military weaponry and handguns on the special units of the federal police before they were neutralized.
The group doesn't appear to have any connection to the gunmen in Paris, maintained Van der Sypt, at least for the time being, save for the claims of the one man arrested, who:
Claim[ed] that he wanted to buy a car from the wife of Coulibaly. At this moment this is the only link between what happened in Paris.
A senior Belgian counter-terrorism official told CNN's terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank that the group had traveled to Syria and was instructed by ISIS to carry out terror attacks in Belgium and across Europe in retaliation for U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
The incident took place at the center of Verviers, in the vicinity of a bakery and a train station. A video captured by bystanders from across the street showed smoke billowing from a building along to the sounds of shouts continuous gunfire.
The federal prosecutor said that anti-terrorist raids were under way in the Brussels region and Verviers. In response to the raid, Belgium's terror alert level was raised to its second highest level, he added.
Earlier Thursday, there were reports that the gunman, Coulibaly, who took the Jewish supermarket hostage in Paris, may have bought the weapons used in the attack in Belgium. The country has seen a rise in radical Islamist activity in recent times. Britain’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalization previously estimated that some 300 Belgians have travelled to Syria, a worryingly disproportionate number for a country of 11 million.
Image: Getty Images