BRUSSELS – Brussels police detained a man with suspected militant links who was found to be carrying two gas bottles in his car after he was pulled over on Thursday for running a red light, officials said.
The man was not named and prosecutors said in a statement that it was too early to speculate on whether he had any criminal intent, although he was “known to police.
The mayor of the district where he was stopped said police had previously suspected him of links to radical Islam.
With the Belgian capital on high alert approaching the first anniversary of Islamic State suicide attacks that killed 32 people on March 22, an area close to the city’s main Gare du Midi rail station was sealed off and the bomb squad called in to check the car after local officers had pulled the driver over.
Reuters reporters heard two controlled explosions. The city prosecutor’s statement made no mention of anything other than the two gas bottles being found. An official said national counterterrorism investigators had not so far been involved.
Belgian police and soldiers on Thursday sealed off part of central Brussels after finding the gas canisters in the car driven by a man known to have been radicalized.
Belgium remains on high alert as it prepares to mark the first anniversary of last year’s Islamic State-inspired attacks on the Brussels metro and airport that killed 32 people.
Prosecutors said the man was detained and is being questioned. Reports said he had previously gone to Syria but officials did not confirm that.
“The car was stopped because the driver jumped several red lights. The police then noticed several gas canisters in the boot and rather than take any risks, they called for help from the army bomb squad,” a police spokeswoman said.
Local Mayor Charles Picque told AFP the driver was “someone potentially dangerous” who was listed as radicalized.
“When you put it all together … and that there were gas cannisters in the boot, which he did not want to open, then obviously you have to be prudent,” Picque said.
The Brussels prosecutors’ office said the bomb disposal squad carried out several controlled explosions but found “no detonating mechanism or other explosives in the car.”
The security perimeter, in force from midafternoon, had also been lifted, it said, without giving any further details.
Local RTBF television said the driver was aged 27 and had gone to Syria in 2014 and been arrested on his return to Belgium.
He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, suspended, at a trial of recruiters of foreign fighters for the Islamic State group in Syria.
The trial was of top jihadi recruiter Khalid Zerkani, who was sentenced in 2016 to 15 years in prison for recruiting dozens of people, including several who became key suspects in the Brussels and Paris attacks, to wage jihad in Syria.
Belgium is one of the largest sources of foreign fighters going to Syria and Iraq.
Thursday’s incident sparked immediate concerns after French police apparently foiled an imminent attack in September when they detained several women driving a car filled with gas canisters next to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The security perimeter was set up in the Porte de Hal neighborhood, near the main Midi rail station in an area that is famous for a medieval fortress that attracts tourists.
Nearby buildings were evacuated and public transport either halted or diverted, causing rush-hour chaos.
The Brussels prosecutors’ office, which confirmed the driver was known to police, said he was now being held for questioning to determine what his intentions were.
“It is absolutely too early to say that the driver had criminal intentions. All speculation in this sense is premature,” a statement said, adding that the identity of the driver could not be released while the investigation is underway.
Attacks carried out by home-grown, IS-inspired jihadis on March 22 last year rocked Belgium and sparked a major security clampdown.
The same jihadi cell also played a key role in the November 2015 Paris attacks, which claimed 130 lives.
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