BRUSSELS – Battling terror on two fronts, Belgian police were holding five people Thursday over an alleged New Year’s plot in Brussels and also arrested a tenth suspect over last month’s massacre in Paris.
Both Brussels and Paris have canceled annual New Year’s Eve fireworks displays as soldiers and police ramped up security in European capitals over perceived terror threats.
“It’s better not to take any risks,” Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said when he announced the showpiece event’s cancellation late Wednesday.
Police detained six people Thursday for questioning over an alleged plot to strike “emblematic sites” in the Belgian capital during the year-end festivities.
But three of them were released after interviews and the others were ordered provisionally held for another 24 hours as the investigation continues, the federal prosecutor’s office said.
The prosecutor’s office also said two men, whom they identified as Said S., 30, and Mohammed K., 27, had already been formally charged with terrorism-related offenses and remain in custody.
The men’s lawyers said their full names are Said Saouti and Mohammed Karay whose arrests were announced Tuesday following police raids in and around Brussels and the eastern city of Liege.
The men denied the charges against them, the lawyers added.
Police seized military-style training uniforms, computer hardware and Islamic State propaganda material in the earlier raids. In Thursday’s raids, they found computer equipment, mobile phones and “airsoft equipment,” the prosecutor’s office said. Airsoft is a type of airgun.
A source close to the investigation told AFP that officials were trying to determine whether members of a motorcycle gang called the Kamikaze Riders were involved in the year-end plot.
Brussels has been on high alert since it emerged that several of the attackers involved in the Paris carnage on Nov. 13 had links to the Belgian capital.
Prosecutors said Thursday they have arrested a 10th suspect over the attacks in Paris claimed by the Islamic State group that killed 130 people and wounded many more. They charged him with terror offenses.
The Belgian national, identified only as Ayoub B., was detained on Wednesday during a raid on a house in the troubled Brussels immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek, the federal prosecutor’s office said.
He has been charged with “terrorist murder” and involvement in the activities of a terrorist group, it said, adding that he will appear in court again within five days for a custody hearing.
Molenbeek is home to the Paris attacks fugitive Salah Abdeslam and has served in the past decades as a haven for jihadis.
Mayeur said Wednesday that fireworks and related events in the central square of Place de Brouckere had been canceled because it was not possible to “guarantee that we can check everyone coming to the event” in the current circumstances.
Last year, some 100,000 people turned out to watch the traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
Counterterrorism analyst Claude Moniquet told RTL television that the decision to cancel the heart of the festivities “lets the terrorists win a little” as they target Western civilization.
It is not the first time the New Year’s Eve fireworks have been canceled as the authorities made the same decision in 2007 because of another terror threat.
Officials said the plot revealed Tuesday was not directly linked to the wave of bombings and shootings on a Paris concert venue, bars, restaurants and the national stadium.
In Turkey, meanwhile, officials said two Islamic State suspects, reportedly both Turks, had been planning to stage suicide bombings in the center of the capital Ankara, which is expected to be packed with revelers later Thursday.
Turkey has been on high security alert since October, when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowd of peace activists in Ankara, killing 103 people in the worst attack in the country’s modern history.
Moscow’s Red Square, traditionally a place where people gather to ring in the New Year, will be closed to revelers on Thursday, while Vienna has also beefed up security ahead of the celebrations.
The French capital remains on high alert and has abandoned its fireworks display on the Champs-Elysees, although the traditional gathering on the famous boulevard will go ahead under tight security.