Suspected Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam evaded a massive manhunt Sunday night involving raids in Brussels and its suburbs, but security forces Monday were also focusing on towns in eastern Belgium, suggesting police fear Europe’s most wanted man might be trying to flee to neighboring Germany.
On the third day of an unprecedented lockdown of the Belgian capital, officials here remain tight-lipped about the biggest security operation mounted in the country since World War II.
On Sunday night, 16 suspects were arrested in more than 19 raids in Brussels and outlying towns to the east and south of Belgium’s capital, which is also home to the main European Union institutions. One of the suspects, who was not named, has been charged in connection with the Paris attacks while 15 others were released. Belgian security officials admitted to VOA they don't believe they have yet rolled up a terror network they say is planning to mount more attacks similar to those that struck Paris November 13 and left 130 people dead and more than 350 injured.
Belgian media outlets said police arrested four people late Saturday, one possibly wearing a suicide belt. But Geert Schoorens of the federal prosecutor’s office said later he could “neither deny nor confirm” the reports. Authorities addressing reporters Monday did not reference those reports.
Meanwhile, Moroccan authorities say Belgium has formally requested help in tracking a key suspect in the Paris massacres, as Brussels remains on lockdown and police there press forward with a massive search for terror suspects.
A statement from Rabat said Belgium's King Philippe asked Moroccan King Mohammed for close and intense cooperation in the hunt for Salah Abdeslam, who has avoided arrest since crossing into Belgium from Paris hours after the November 13 attacks.
A Moroccan tip last week helped lead French police to an apartment in north Paris where another suspect, massacre architect Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed in a November 18 raid.
Elsewhere, police in the southern Paris suburb of Montrouge on Monday were analyzing an apparent suicide explosives belt found in a trash bin. A French police official quoted by the Associated Press said preliminary analysis of the vest, which lacked a detonator, showed traces of TATP, an explosive used in the Paris attacks which killed at least 130 people. The belt, containing bolts, was found in the same area as a cell phone belonging to the fugitive Abdeslam, who was seen in the area the night of the attacks.
Late Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert, warning Americans that Islamic State extremists and other terror organizations continue planning attacks "in multiple regions." The advisory cited recent attacks in Denmark, France, Mali, Nigeria and Turkey, and urged "particular caution" during the upcoming holiday season.
Spotted near German border
Counter-terror units were active Monday in Liège, Belgium, apparently chasing tips that Abdeslam was spotted in a BMW there. Liege is less than a half hour's drive from the German border and close to the Belgian town of Verviers, where in January Belgian police units were involved in a gunfight with jihadists. A local media outlet reported that the 26-year-old Frenchman and former petty criminal managed to break through a police cordon near Liège, but officials refused to confirm or deny the claim.
If true, the escape from police clutches near Liège would be the second time Abdeslam has been close to capture. Just hours after the Paris attacks, Abdeslam was stopped by French police near the border with Belgium in a car with two other men and was questioned but let go. At the time, his involvement in the attacks was not known, so there was no alert out on him.
Belgian security sources told VOA they believe Abdeslam is receiving help from jihadist networks to evade capture, despite the fact that the fugitive told friends in Skype conversations, according to an ABC News report two days ago, that the Islamic State was unhappy with him after he failed to detonate his suicide vest. They said he was still desperate to get to IS territory in Syria.