Brussels mayor criticizes police for not stopping hooligans from disrupting attack memorial

AFP-JIJI

Belgian riot police fired water cannon on Sunday to disperse far-right soccer hooligans who disrupted mourners at a shrine for victims of the Brussels attacks, as police arrested several suspects in a series of new raids.

In scenes that compounded a week of grief for Belgians, black-clad protesters shouting anti-immigrant slogans moved in on the makeshift memorial at Place de la Bourse where hundreds of people had gathered in a show of solidarity.

Under-fire Belgian authorities meanwhile detained four terror suspects after carrying out 13 raids as they seek to round up a web of jihadis with links to the carnage in the Belgian capital and to attacks and plots across the border in France.

The clashes between the far-right demonstrators and police underscored the tensions in Belgium after the March 22 Islamic State suicide attacks on the airport and the metro system in which 28 people died and 340 were wounded.

“This is our home” and “The state, Daesh accomplice” around 300 hooligans chanted, using an alternate term for Islamic State, as they gathered near the square by the stock exchange building, AFP journalists witnessed.

Some trampled on the carpet of flowers, candles and messages left at the site by mourners in recent days while at least one wore a mask with a well-known far-right symbol.

Police urged the mourners, who included some Muslims, not to provoke the hooligans, but some chanted “Fascists! Fascists! We’re not having it!”

Riot police with helmets and shields corralled the hooligans before dispersing them with high power water jets, and marshaling them onto trains out of the city.

Around 10 people were arrested, police told AFP.

Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said police had done “nothing” to stop the hooligans coming to Brussels despite having advance warning, adding that he was “appalled” that “such thugs have come to provoke residents at the site of their memorial.”

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said he “emphatically” condemned the demonstration.

The mourners gathered despite the fact that organizers had earlier called off the March Against Fear in Brussels on Sunday at the request of Belgian authorities, who said police needed the resources for the attacks investigation.

In a homily at the medieval cathedral of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule in Brussels, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Jozef de Kesel, said the attacks “defy understanding.”

“We are confronted with evil on an unimaginable scale which causes so much innocent and useless suffering,” the Belga news agency quoted de Kesel as saying.

“Easter celebrates victory over evil,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Belgian Crisis Center said 28 people had died in the airport and metro attacks, down from an initial toll of 31 that had included the three suicide bombers.

Of the 28 who died, 24 have been identified, among them 13 Belgians and 11 foreign nationals, it said. A total 340 people from 19 countries were wounded, of whom 101 remain in hospital — 62 of them in intensive care.

As Belgium struggles to come to terms with the tragedy, recriminations continue over whether the authorities could and should have done more to prevent the carnage, as the links to the November Paris attacks by Islamic State grow clearer by the day.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday the Brussels attacks highlighted the “great urgency” facing Europe to tackle the problem of young jihadis returning from fighting in Syria to carry out attacks.

Police carried out 13 raids Sunday across Brussels and the towns of Duffel and Mechelen to the north, the federal prosecutor said, questioning nine people and holding four for further inquiries.

In the latest piece in the puzzle of the jihadi networks straddling France and Belgium, prosecutors said they had charged a second man with involvement in a terror group over a foiled plot to strike France.

Overnight, Italian police arrested an Algerian national in connection with the production of fake IDs used by the Paris and Brussels attackers, suggesting their networks spread far and wide and will not be easy to dismantle.

The suspect, named as Djamal Eddine Ouali, 40, was interrogated Sunday but refused to speak, a judicial source said.

On Saturday, a Belgian suspect identified as Faycal Cheffou, widely thought to be the fugitive third bomber from the airport, was charged in Brussels with terrorist murder and participation in a terrorist group.

There has been intense speculation he is the man wearing a dark hat and light-colored jacket seen in airport surveillance footage alongside Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, who blew themselves up.

Brussels airport meanwhile said an examination of the wrecked departure hall showed the structure was stable and authorities will now see if temporary check-in desks can be installed, although it will not reopen before Tuesday.

Veteran French rocker Johnny Hallyday provided a little musical solace to Belgium late Saturday, holding a concert in Brussels despite the fact that U.S. pop star Mariah Carey canceled a gig, citing security fears.