Following a day of counter-terrorism raids across Western Europe, Belgium will deploy at least 300 troops as a preemptive move. The Belgian government plans to mobilize the troops on Saturday in the nation's largest cities, including Brussels, Antwerp and Verviers. The move comes as France and its neighbors have been placed on high alert, worrying about more Jihadi threats in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
In a statement (in French) released on Saturday by the office of Prime Minister Charles Michel, Belgian government officials said the decision to deploy 300 soldiers was made in a last-minute meeting of the prime minister and his Council of Ministers on Friday night. The soldiers will be armed, and primarily tasked with monitoring certain sites and reinforcing police, the statement said.
The prime minister's office added that Belgium is now on level 2 and 3 security alert, and these troops will "strengthen" the nation's security and vigilance. According to BBC News, Belgium's defense ministry said 150 police officers were already in place throughout the country. That number is expected to rise over the coming week.
The counter-terrorism raids in Belgium began late Thursday night, when police conducted searches in Brussels and Verviers. Two suspects were reportedly killed after opening fire on police during a raid in Verviers.
Overall, Belgium security forces launched nearly a dozen searches on terrorist suspects on Thursday and Friday. The Associated Press reported that Belgian police found four Kalashnikov assault rifles in the raids, as well as other dangerous weapons and police uniforms. According to the AP, French, German, Belgian and Irish police had at least 30 suspects in custody by Friday.
The Islamist suspects who were killed in Verviers on Thursday were reportedly planning a terrorist strike in Belgium, authorities said. Federal magistrate Eric Van der Sypt told reporters that their plot was foiled within hours of being carried out, though he added to the media that he could not confirm "we arrested everyone in this group" or terrorist cell.
According to CNN, the two slain suspects had links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and may have recently traveled to Syria to fight against the United States and their allied forces, which includes Belgium. A Belgian counter-terrorism source added to CNN that there members of this terrorist cell on the loose.
The source also said that the suspected terrorists planned on targeting police, which may explain the police uniforms found. However, officials still don't know for sure who their targets were.
Europol, which is the law enforcement agency for the European Union, said on Saturday that these new terrorist threats were serious and unprecedented. In an interview with Sky News, Europol Director Rob Wainwright said Europe was "dealing with a very serious challenge" involving thousands of potential suspects:
This is a large-scale problem, and as the prime minister [David Cameron] has said, a long-term problem as well. ... It's clearly an urgent and very serious challenge that we face now. ... Stopping everything is very difficult, containing the threat fully is very difficult, but I’m sure we will prevail, as we have prevailed against other forms of terrorism in the past.
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