Brussels: Continuing terror threat

Traditional New Year's Eve fireworks in the center of Brussels have been canceled because the police contend there is a continuing terror threat to the Belgian capital, officials said Sunday.

The authorities have warned of an increased risk of attack over the holiday season since the police detained 14 people last week. They were suspected of a plot to break a prisoner linked to Al Qaeda out of a Belgian prison.

A judge ordered their release 24 hours later for lack of evidence, and all of the suspects have maintained their innocence. In a letter published by the newspaper La Dernière Heure, the prisoner, Nizar Trabelsi, denied the allegation that his supporters were involved in preparations for a jailbreak or a terrorist attack.

But the authorities announced that heightened security measures would be maintained until Thursday at least.

Jaak Raes, director general of the government's crisis center, said, "We've reviewed the situation and the conclusion is that there is no reason to scale back the current level of alert." Click here to find out more!

Raes said that the Christmas market in the city center would be closed at 6 p.m. on New Year's Eve, rather than staying open all night, and that an adjacent skating rink would be shut down at 8 p.m.

Trabelsi, 37, a former professional soccer player from Tunisia, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for planning to drive a car bomb into the cafeteria of a Belgian Air Force base, where about 100 U.S. military personnel also lived.

The government asserted last week that it had information the suspects were plotting to use explosives and other weapons to free Trabelsi, who was arrested in Brussels two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and convicted two years later.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt warned that the suspects could have other targets and ordered the police to step up security in public places, including at the Brussels airport, subway stations and the Christmas market.

At the time of his trial in 2003, Trabelsi admitted that he had planned to kill U.S. soldiers at the air base in northeastern Belgium.

Trabelsi came to Europe to play professional soccer in 1989. He bounced from team to team in the minor leagues over the next few years, acquiring a cocaine habit and a criminal record. He eventually made his way to a Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where evidence presented at his trial showed that he had placed himself on a "list of martyrs" ready to commit suicide attacks.

Source: International Herald Tribune (English)

See also: Brussels: "An attack is just a matter of time"

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