Police are questioning two people in connection with a shootout following an anti-terrorism operation at an apartment in Brussels while two other as yet unidentified suspects are still at large.
Authorities said an Islamic flag and a Salafist manual were found by the body of the gunman who was shot dead in the exchange of fire that took place when police stormed the apartment in the suburb of Forest in the Belgian capital. Also found in the flat were Kalashnikovs and empty weapon shells, although there were no explosives.
In a press conference, spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor Éric Van Der Sypt named the deceased as 36-year-old Mohammed Belcaid, an Algerian who was in the country illegally but who had not been known to authorities, apart from a minor theft charge.
The spokesman described how the drama of the police search unfolded. Six officers were sent to the apartment – four Belgian and two French – and when they opened the front door, those inside immediately opened fire. "In the short but intense shootout three of the officers were lightly injured," he said.
Later in the evening there was another police search in L'Eau Street which yielded weapons and black clothing. Other searches took place in the suburbs of Neerstalle and Sint-Pieters-Leeuw with one person taken in for questioning.
One of the prime suspects is the 26-year-old Brussels-based Frenchman Salah Abdeslam, who is considered to still be on the run, having fled the French capital soon after his brother blew himself up outside a cafe.
However Belgian public television quoted French police sources as saying Abdeslam had not been the target of Tuesday's raid.
Criticism of the operation
Belgian authorities are holding 10 people who have been arrested in the months since the attacks, mostly for helping Abdeslam.
Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon told the Belgian station Radio 1 (VRT) that the officers who had been injured during the exchange of fire on Tuesday have left hospital, two of them had returned home. Asked about whether police had underestimated the gravity of the situation, Jambon said that a police raid would only take place following a full risk assessment. He said that it was not appropriate to criticize the operation at this stage of the investigation.
"If the operation is considered dangerous, the Special Units take charge. But the terrorists are not waiting behind the door while the police enter, they are professionals who know how to work the police. Nine times out of 10, the assessment is correct, but sometimes it goes the other other. way," he told the station.
The Forest neighbourhood is close to the Molenbeek district which is renowned as a centre for Islamist militants. Belgium has Europe's highest rate of Islamist fighters per capita.
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel was due to hold a national security meeting on 16 March.