Investigators to identify MH17 suspects: Dutch broadcasters

FILE PHOTO: A Malaysian air crash investigator inspects the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo) in Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 22, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Investigators will next week announce criminal proceedings against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 five years ago, allegedly by pro-Russian separatists, two leading Dutch broadcasters reported on Friday.

MH17 was shot out of the sky over territory held by separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

About two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch.

Dutch prosecutors said on Friday a multi-national investigation team would present its latest findings to media and families on June 19. A spokesman for the national Dutch prosecution service declined to specify what would be announced.

Citing anonymous sources, broadcaster RTL reported that the public prosecution service had decided to launch a case against several MH17 suspects.

National public broadcaster NOS also reported that criminal proceedings will be announced against individual suspects.

No suspects were named in the reports.

The Joint Investigation Team, which seeks to try the suspects under Dutch law, has said the missile system came from the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the western Russian city of Kursk.

Investigators had said their next step would be to identify individual culprits and to attempt to put them on trial.

Dutch officials have said Russia has refused to cooperate.

Russia is not expected to surrender any potential suspects who may be on its territory and authorities have said individuals could be tried in absentia.

The Joint Investigation Team was formed in 2014 by Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine to investigate collaboratively.

The Netherlands and Australia, which lost 38 people, hold Russia legally responsible. Moscow denies all involvement and maintains that it does not support, financially or with equipment, pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian government troops.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Deadly attack in New York City branded ‘terrorism’ by authorities

Police investigate a pickup truck used in an attack on the West Side Highway in Manhattan, New York, U.S.,

By Gina Cherelus and Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) – An Uzbek immigrant accused of killing eight people in New York City by driving a rental truck down a riverfront bike path on Tuesday appeared to have acted alone in an attack that bore all the hallmarks of terrorism, authorities said.

The suspect, who was shot by police and arrested moments after the rampage in Lower Manhattan, left a note saying he carried out the attack in the name of the militant Islamic State group, the New York Times and CNN said.

The death toll was lower than from similar assaults in Spain in August and in France and Germany last year. However, it was still the bloodiest single attack on New York City since Sept. 11, 2001, when suicide hijackers crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,600 people.

The suspect allegedly swerved the pickup onto a path filled with pedestrians and bicyclists on a sunny, crisp autumn afternoon, mowing down everyone in his path before slamming into the side of a school bus.

The man then exited the vehicle brandishing what turned out to be a paint-ball gun and a pellet gun before a police officer shot him in the abdomen.

Multiple bikes are crushed along a bike path in lower Manhattan in New York, NY, U.S., October 31, 2017.

Multiple bikes are crushed along a bike path in lower Manhattan in New York, NY, U.S., October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

The attack, which left crumpled bicycles scattered along the path and victims writhing on the ground, was over in seconds.

In addition to the eight fatalities at least 11 people were hospitalized for injuries described as serious but not life-threatening. That excluded the suspect, who underwent surgery for gunshot wounds.

Police declined to publicly identify the man, but a source familiar with the investigation said his name was Sayfullo Saipov, 29. He reportedly lived in Paterson, New Jersey, a one-time industrial hub about 25 miles (40 km) northwest of lower Manhattan.

He had rented the pickup from a Home Depot hardware store which, according to media accounts, was located in Passaic, just south of Paterson.

First responders tend to a victim after a shooting incident in New York City

First responders tend to a victim after a shooting incident in New York City October 31, 2017.

ARGENTINE FRIENDS AMONG DEAD

Six victims were pronounced dead at the scene and two more at a nearby hospital, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.

Five of the dead were Argentine tourists, visiting New York as part of a group of friends celebrating the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation, the government there said. Belgium’s foreign minister said a Belgian citizen was also among those killed.

Despite the attack, thousands of costumed Halloween revelers turned out hours later for New York City’s main Halloween parade, which went on as scheduled on Tuesday night with a heightened police presence just a few blocks away.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said police will be out in force to protect the city’s marathon, which is scheduled for Sunday. “You’ll see a lot of officers with long guns. Other things you won’t see that are protecting us,” he told MSNBC.

A U.S. law enforcement official described the suspect as a U.S. immigrant born in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country in Central Asia that was once part of the former Soviet Union. CNN and NBC News said he entered the United States in 2010.

Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said his government would do all it could to help investigate the “extremely brutal” attack.

Authorities late on Tuesday surrounded a house in Paterson where, according to the New York Times, Saipov was believed to have lived. Paterson, known for its large immigrant population, is home to about 150,000 people, including 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims.

ABC News reported that Saipov had lived in Tampa, Florida. A check of court records related to a traffic citation that Saipov received in eastern Pennsylvania in 2015 showed he listed addresses then in Paterson and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

CNN and other media outlets, citing police officials, reported that the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” – Arabic for “God is greatest” – when he jumped out of his truck.

Although authorities from the mayor’s office to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security all swiftly branded the attack an act of terrorism, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo stressed that the suspect was believed to have acted alone.

The New York Times said investigators quickly recognized Saipov had come to the attention of law enforcement in the past. It cited three officials as saying federal authorities knew of Saipov from an unrelated probe, although it was unclear whether that was because he had ties to someone who was under scrutiny or because he was the target of an investigation.

A damaged school bus is seen at the scene of a pickup truck attack in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 31, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media.

A damaged school bus is seen at the scene of a pickup truck attack in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 31, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Sebastian Sobczak via REUTERS

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, told MSNBC in an interview that authorities were not aware of any other suspects, but that finding any such links would be a priority.

“It’s still I think far too early to say” whether the suspect was radicalized before he came to the United States years ago or shifted once he was already here, or acted on his own rather than at the behest of an organized group, he said.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has pressed for a ban on travelers entering the United States from some predominantly Muslim countries, said on Twitter that he had ordered Homeland Security officials to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

He also criticized the U.S. visa system, blaming Democrats and saying that he wanted a ‘merit based’ program for immigrants to the United States.

 

 

(Reporting by Dan Trotta and Gina Cherelus in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Anna Driver and Barbara Goldberg in New York, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait and Chizu Nomiyama)

 

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

Spain awaits next move by ousted Catalan leader from Belgium

By Raquel Castillo and Angus MacSwan

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s foreign minister said on Tuesday he would be surprised if Belgium granted political asylum to Catalan secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont, who turned up there after Madrid’s dismissal and takeover of Catalonia’s regional government.

By Tuesday, the Madrid government had gained the upper hand in the protracted struggle over Catalonia’s independence drive.

Resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct control on the autonomous region failed to materialize at the start of the week on Monday. The secessionist leadership is in disarray, and attention is now turning to a regional election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for Dec. 21 as a way out of the crisis.

But Puigdemont, whose parliament declared an independent Catalan republic on Friday before being removed by Rajoy, remains a thorn in Madrid’s side. He was due to make a statement later on Tuesday in Brussels, where he was seen by journalists on Tuesday after having dropped out of sight for 24 hours.

Spain’s prosecutor called for charges of rebellion and other crimes to be laid against him, which carry combined sentences of more than 30 years in prison. Spain’s Supreme Court also began proceedings for rebellion against the Catalan parliament speaker and other senior lawmakers, a court spokesman said on Tuesday.

Any request for asylum in Belgium could lead to a diplomatic dispute between the two European Union nations. But Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis appeared to play down that prospect for now.

“We have no certainty of what he is doing,” he told Cadena Ser radio. “We would be a bit surprised, given the situation regarding the right of asylum in Europe, but the actions of ex-president Puigdemont are not easy to foresee.”

Any decision would be up to Belgian courts, not the government, Dastis said. “If Belgium grants asylum to Puigdemont, it will not be a normal situation. Let’s leave it there for now.”

In Belgium, Puigdemont’s lawyer Paul Bekaert, a veteran human rights advocate, told Reuters his client was considering seeking asylum but it was not certain.

“We have not yet decided. We have a lot of time to decide,” Bekaert said. “We will see in the coming weeks what we are doing.”

While Belgium has an unusual track record in refusing to extradite Europeans wanted by other EU states, the main reason Puigdemont had come was to address a wider audience for Catalonia’s grievances against Madrid, Bekaert said.

European nations including Britain, Germany and France have backed Rajoy and rejected an independent Catalan state, although some have called for dialogue between the opposing sides.

The Spanish government has also said Puigdemont was welcome to take his chances and stand in the Dec. 21 election.

UNCERTAINTY TO BUILD

The political crisis, Spain’s gravest in the four decades since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, was triggered by an independence referendum in Catalonia on Oct. 1.

Though it was declared illegal by Spanish courts and less than half Catalonia’s eligible voters took part, the pro-secessionist regional government said the vote gave it a mandate for independence.

Some prominent ousted Catalan leaders, including Puigdemont and Vice President Oriol Junqueras, had said they would not accept their dismissal. But their respective parties, PdeCat and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said on Monday they would take part in the Dec. 21 election, a tacit acceptance of direct rule from Madrid.

Two opinion polls showed support for independence may have started to wane. A Sigma Dos survey published in El Mundo showed 33.5 percent of Catalans were in favor of independence, while a Metroscopia poll published by El Pais put that number at 29 percent. That compared with 41.1 percent in July, according to an official survey carried out by the Catalan government.

Opponents of secession say a majority of Catalans want to remain part of Spain and did not take part in the referendum.

But some analysts say the dispute is not going to disappear anytime soon despite the present state of play.

“Spain is heading for a period of disruption, and like the UK and Brexit, having its policy agenda dominated by one political issue while other key challenges fade into the background,” said Raj Badiani, an economist at IHS Markit in London.

“A more tangible impact from the crisis could evolve from early 2018, with the uncertainty set to build as Catalans push harder for a legally binding referendum.”

The government’s move to impose direct rule received the backing of several influential Catalan business lobbies, which called on firms to stay in the region. The chaos has prompted an exodus of businesses from Catalonia, which contributes about a fifth of Spain’s economy.

Credit rating agency Fitch late on Monday said the escalation of tensions in Catalonia significantly worsened the outlook for Spain’s economic growth and could prompt negative action on the country’s rating.

In Barcelona, some people displayed exasperation.

“It’s a farcical and completely ridiculous situation,” said Ernesto Hernandez Busto, a 42-year-old editor. “This extreme nationalism, this separatism, has taken Catalonia to the most absurd situation and the worst inconvenience we have had in the last 40 years.”

(Additional reporting by Paul Day and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Lucasta Bath and Clement Rossignol in Belgium; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Belgium launches twin investigations into knife attack

People walk next to the scene where a man attacked two soldiers with a knife in Brussels, Belgium August 25, 2017 in this picture obtained from social media. Picture taken August 25, 2017. Thomas Da Silva Rosa /via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian authorities on Saturday launched twin investigations into a knife attack they consider to be an act of terrorism and released more details of the suspect shot dead by soldiers in central Brussels.

Federal prosecutors said that they had requested an investigating judge look into the incident on Friday that they said constituted attempted murder.

A second investigation would look at the soldiers’ response.

The man shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) as he stabbed the soldiers, one of whom shot him twice.

The assailant died shortly afterwards in hospital. Investigators then found a fake firearm and two copies of the Koran among his possessions.

They said the man, aged 30 and of Somali origin, had come to Belgium in 2004. Migration Minister Theo Francken said the man had been granted asylum in 2009 and gained Belgian citizenship in 2015.

Investigators also searched the man’s home in the northern city of Bruges, prosecutors said, without giving any details of what they had found.

They added the man was not known to have any links to Islamist militancy, but had committed an act of assault and battery in February this year.

Brussels prosecutors said they had started an investigation into whether the soldier who killed the man had acted correctly.

“It appears that the soldier twice shot the suspect who had attacked them with a knife. These shots were fired in the context of self-defense and according to the rules of engagement,” the prosecution service said in a statement.

It added that an autopsy would be carried out on Saturday. Prosecutors would take a final decision based on this and a report by a ballistics expert.

Soldiers routinely patrol the streets of the Belgian capital due to a heightened security alert level after Islamist shooting and bomb attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016.

In June, troops shot dead a suspected suicide bomber at Brussels’ central train station. There were no other casualties. Authorities treated the incident as an attempted terrorist attack.

 

 

(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

 

Abortive Brussels attack could have been much worse: PM

Belgian soldiers patrol inside Brussels central railway station after a suicide bomber was shot dead by troops in Brussels, Belgium, June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Philip Blenkinsop and Charlotte Steenackers

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A suitcase bomb packed with nails and gas bottles could have caused heavy casualties, Belgium’s prime minister said on Wednesday, a day after a soldier shot dead a Moroccan national attempting an attack on Brussels’ central station.

“We have avoided an attack that could have been a great deal worse,” Charles Michel told reporters after a national security council meeting following Tuesday evening’s incident, in which no one else was hurt.

However, no further threat was seen as imminent and the public alert level was left unchanged.

A counter-terrorism prosecutor named the dead man only by his initials, O.Z. He was a 36-year-old Moroccan citizen who lived in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek and had not been suspected of militant links. He set off his bomb on a crowded station concourse below ground at 8:44 p.m. (2.44 p.m. ET).

Walking up to a group of passengers, prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said, “he grabbed his suitcase, while shouting and causing a partial explosion. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.”

The suitcase, later found to contain nails and gas bottles, caught fire and then exploded a second time more violently as the man ran downstairs to the platforms.

He then ran back up to the concourse where commuters had been milling around and rushed toward a soldier shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is greater, in Arabic. The soldier, part of a routine patrol, shot him several times. Bomb disposal experts checked the body and found he was not carrying more explosives.

Police raided the man’s home overnight, Van Der Sypt said.

Molenbeek, an impoverished borough with a big Moroccan Muslim population just across Brussels’ industrial canal from its historic center, gained notoriety after an Islamic State cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people. Associates of that group attacked Brussels itself four months later, killing 32 people.

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday's attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

Belgian policemen get out of a house after searching it, following yesterday’s attack, in Brussels, Belgium June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

“WE WILL NOT BE INTIMIDATED”

Prime Minister Michel insisted the country, which has been the most fertile European recruiting ground for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, would not bow to threats that have seen combat troops become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.

“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said. “We will go on living our lives as normal.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and no word on how investigations are progressing into whether the man had acted alone or had help, and into any links to radical groups.

The Belgian capital, home to the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, took a heavy hit to its tourist industry last year. Visitors and residents out enjoying a hot summer’s evening on the ornate Renaissance town square, the Grand Place, close to Central Station were cleared quickly away by police.

Smoke billowed through the elegant 1930s marble hallways of the station, sending people fleeing to the surface, well aware of last year’s attacks at Brussels airport and on the metro, as well as of a string of Islamic State-inspired assaults in France, Germany, Sweden and Britain.

“Such isolated acts will continue in Brussels, in Paris and elsewhere. It’s inevitable,” Brussels security consultant Claude Moniquet, a former French agent, told broadcaster RTL.

With Islamic State under pressure in Syria, he said, attacks in Europe may increase, though many would be by “amateurs”.

Witness Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”

Remy Bonnaffe, a 23-year-old lawyer who was waiting for a train home, photographed the flaming suitcase before the second blast, followed by gunfire, prompted him to run.

“I think we had some luck tonight,” he told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Clement Rossignol, Francesco Guarascio, Jan Strupczewski, Elizabeth Miles and Alastair Macdonald; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Paris gunman’s criminal past in focus as police hunt second suspect

French CRS police patrol the Champs Elysees Avenue the day after a policeman was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident in Paris, France, April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Emmanuel Jarry and John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – The man who shot dead a French policeman in an Islamist militant attack had served time for armed assaults on law enforcement officers, police sources said on Friday, as authorities sought a second suspect flagged by Belgian security services.

The gunman, identified as Karim Cheurfi, opened fire on a police vehicle parked on the Champs Elysees in Paris late on Thursday, killing one officer and injuring two others before being shot dead.

The attack overshadowed the last day of campaigning for Sunday’s presidential election first round, bringing raw issues surrounding Islamist militancy to the fore.

Cheurfi, a French national who lived in the eastern Paris suburb of Chelles, had been convicted for previous armed assaults on law enforcement officers going back 16 years, the sources said, and was well known to authorities.

In addition to the assault rifle used in the attack, he had a pump action shotgun and knives in his car, the sources said. Three of his family members have been placed in detention, the French interior ministry announced on Friday.

While in detention, Cheurfi had also shot and wounded a prison officer after seizing his gun. Eventually freed after serving most of his sentence, he was arrested again this year on suspicion of preparing an attack on police – but released for lack of evidence.

A French interior ministry spokesman confirmed on Friday that a manhunt was underway for a second individual, based on information from Belgian security services.

“It’s too early to say how or whether he was connected to what happened on the Champs Elysees,” ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said. “There are a certain number of leads to check. We are not ruling anything out.”

A potential second suspect was identified as Youssouf El Osri in a document seen by Reuters. Belgian security officials had warned French counterparts before the attack that El Osri was a “very dangerous individual en route to France” aboard the Thalys high-speed train.

The warning was circulated more widely among French security services in the hour following the Champs Elysees attack.

Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Champs Elysees shooting hours after the attack, in a statement identifying the attacker as “Abu Yousif the Belgian.”

El Osri’s connection with either Cheurfi or the man named in Islamic State’s statement remained unclear on Friday.

Coming just days after police said they had foiled another planned Islamist attack, arresting two men in the southern city of Marseille, the Champs Elysees shooting dominated the final day of election campaigning.

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, both talked up their tough law-and-order stances while centrist front-runner Emmanuel Macron stressed he was also up to the challenge.

(Additional reporting by John Irish, Gerard Bon and Yves Clarisse; Writing by Laurence Frost; Editing by Andrew Callus)

Suspect in foiled French election attack also sought by Belgium

French firefighters secure the street as police conduct an investigation after two Frenchmen were arrested in Marseille, France, April 18, 2017 for planning to carry out an "imminent and violent attack" ahead of the first round of the presidential election on Sunday, France's interior minister said.   REUTERS/Philippe Laurenson 

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A man held in France over a foiled plot to stage an attack ahead of the first round of France’s presidential election was also sought by Belgian authorities, Belgium’s federal prosecutor said.

Clement Baur, 23, was one of two people detained on Sunday in Marseille and authorities said he had plotted an “imminent and violent attack”.

“Clement B. was wanted for questioning. However, there has been no trace of him in Belgium since the end of 2015,” Belgium’s federal prosecutor said on Wednesday.

The prosecutor added Belgium had cooperated with French authorities to find Baur, without giving further details. It also did not say why he was wanted in Belgium.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; editing by Philip Blenkinsop)

Year on from bombings, Brussels remains on alert

People take part in a rally called "The march against the fear, Tous Ensemble, Samen Een, All Together" in memory for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels, Belgium, April 17, 2016. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Alastair Macdonald

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – A year after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 32 people in Brussels, Belgian authorities say much remains unclear about who ordered the attacks, even if those who staged them are either dead or in jail.

The March 22 bloodshed in Brussels hit Zaventem airport and a metro train, coming four months after bombings and shootings in Paris that killed 130 people. Both sets of attacks were carried out by related cells of young Muslims, some of whom had returned from fighting in Syria.

Since then, Belgium has remained on high alert as it tries to curtail threats both at home and from militants who may return from the Middle East.

“We will only have certainty when the situation in Syria and Iraq is resolved,” one senior official said of the inquiries into the Brussels attacks. Those two countries have attracted over 400 Belgians to join the ranks of Islamist militants, according to a study by the Hague-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism.

That figure makes Belgium one of the biggest contributors to foreign jihadists in the Middle East in proportion to its population.

As the Belgian capital prepares to mark Wednesday’s anniversary with ceremonies timed to the moment the bombers struck, authorities are still unsure just who in the IS group organized and ordered the attacks, even though 59 people are in custody and 60 on bail.

The most recent arrest was in January, of a man suspected of providing forged identity papers to Khalid El Bakraoui, the 27-year-old suicide bomber who killed 16 people on a train at the downtown Maelbeek metro station.

With soldiers still a permanent presence around Brussels’ transportation hubs, security officials told reporters in briefings ahead of the anniversary that there was still a risk that armed militants were still at large.

For Belgian security services, some communities can remain hard to penetrate, such as the tight-knit Muslim neighborhood of Molenbeek where the prime suspect of the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, hid near his family home for four months. His arrest triggered his associates to strike Brussels four days later.

Despite efforts to detect and discourage the influence of violent Islamist ideas, young men who engaged in petty crime remain vulnerable to it, officials said. But surveillance over potential jihadists has intensified in the past year, they added

Only five Belgians were detected trying to leave for Syria last year, with only one succeeding, officials said, marking a contrast from the previous years.

That, however, has raised concerns, a senior security official told reporters, since Islamic State appeared to be issuing instructions to followers to “attack infidels at home”.

Some 160 Belgian citizens remain in Syria, officials estimate, but some 80 children have been born to them there, creating fears of a new risk.

“These children could be tomorrow’s danger,” the official said. “They’ve seen atrocities, they’ve been brainwashed. Some of them already received military training. We really have to work with them on their return.”

(Reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek; Edited by Vin Shahrestani; @macdonaldrtr)

Belgian police alerted to IS Fighters en route to Europe

A Belgian police officer patrols near an apartment building during the reconstruction of the recent attacks, in the Brussels

By Philip Blenkinsop

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Belgian police have received an anti-terror alert warning that a group of Islamic State fighters recently left Syria en route for Europe planning attacks in Belgium and France, a Belgian security source said on Wednesday.

The Belgian crisis center in charge of coordinating security responses said an alert had been circulated to all police forces in the country but there were no immediate plans to raise the security level to the maximum that would indicate an imminent threat of an attack.

A source at France’s Interior Ministry said Belgian authorities had transmitted a note to their French counterparts, who were currently reviewing the information in the alert. “We know the threat is very high,” the source said. “We’re reviewing all the elements (in the alert).”

Newspaper DH quoted the alert from Belgium’s anti-terror cell as saying the group “left Syria about a week and a half ago aiming to reach Europe via Turkey and Greece by boat without passports”, without giving an exact departure date.

The Belgian security source confirmed the contents of the alert. The Belgian federal police declined to comment and the French source could not confirm the content.

DH said the fighters were armed and aimed to split into two units, one aiming to carry out attacks in Belgium, the other in France. Potential targets in Belgium included a shopping center, a fast-food restaurant and a police station.

It mentioned no specific targets in France, which is hosting the Euro 2016 soccer championships in 10 stadiums across the country until July 10. Some 2.5 million spectators are expected to watch the 51 matches.

“We know there are fighters who are coming back (to Europe),” French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told a news conference on Wednesday, adding he could not confirm the specific alert from Belgium.

The alert came two days after an attacker who pledged allegiance to Islamic State killed a French police commander and his partner at their home outside Paris, and four days after a gunman declaring loyalty to the Islamist militant group massacred 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

NO CHANGE IN SECURITY LEVEL

Belgian authorities raised the threat level for the capital Brussels to the maximum of four shortly after the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and after suicide bombers killed 32 people at Brussels airport and on the city’s metro on March 22. The status was lowered on each occasion after a few days.

Belgian police have arrested a number of men of Moroccan origin suspected of direct or indirect involvement in the Paris and Brussels attacks.

A spokesman for the Belgian crisis center said that despite the latest alert, the body that sets the security level did not have any indication of an imminent threat.

“We are still at level three, which refers to a threat that is serious, and we have been at this level since November,” he said. “It is true that you should be careful in areas with large concentrations of people… Security has already been reinforced at all these targets. For now, there has not been a change.”

(Additional reporting by Chine Labbe, Elizabeth Pineau and Jean-Baptiste Vey in Paris,; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Gareth Jones)

U.S. frustration simmers over Belgium’s struggle with militant threat

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Shortly after last November’s attacks on Paris by a Brussels-based Islamic State cell, a top U.S. counter-terrorism official traveling in Europe wanted to visit Brussels to learn more about the investigation.

When the official tried to arrange meetings, however, his Belgian counterparts were not welcoming, according to U.S. officials familiar with the events. The Belgians indicated it was a bad time to speak to foreign officials as they were too busy with the investigation, said the officials, who asked not to be identified.

Belgian officials declined to comment on the incident.

The brush-off was one small sign of mounting U.S. frustration over Brussels’ handling of its worsening Islamic militant threat.

Concern that the small European nation’s security and intelligence officials are overwhelmed — and that its coordination with allies falls short — have again come to the fore following the Islamic State-claimed attacks on Tuesday that killed at least 31 people.

Several U.S. officials say that security cooperation has been hampered by patchy intelligence–sharing by Brussels and wide differences in the willingness of different agencies to work with foreign countries, even close allies.

One U.S. government source said that when American investigators try to contact Belgian agencies for information, they often struggle to find which agency or part of an agency might have relevant information.

Belgium has ordered a sharp increase in security budgets following the Paris attacks, despite being under steady pressure to limit its debt levels under euro zone rules. The government has promised to recruit around 2,500 more federal police, who pursue major crimes, to make up for a shortfall of close to a fifth of the full-strength force of 12,500.

It also says it thwarted a major attack in January 2015, and is eager to cooperate with European and U.S. counterparts.

“These attacks show that more coordination with the United States is clearly desirable,” Guy Rapaille, the president of the committee that provides oversight of Belgium’s security and intelligence services, told Belgium’s state broadcaster RTBF.

“But you have to remember that big powers guard their intelligence very closely.”

U.S. officials acknowledge the recent Belgian efforts to step up funding and recruitment.

Yet they say Belgian security services are outmatched by the threat in a country that, per capita, has supplied the highest number of foreign fighters to Syria of any European nation.

“They’re way behind the ball and they’re paying a terrible price,” Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told Reuters.

Asked on Wednesday whether Belgium was too complacent over the threat posed by Islamic militancy, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said:

“I want to stay clear of saying that Belgium was somehow caught by surprise or not aware. You know, we collaborate, we work with Belgium closely.”

Some U.S. counter-terrorism officials say much of the gap between Washington and Belgium — and some other European countries — is cultural. Europeans’ deeper commitment to personal privacy sometimes prevents or delays sharing of information such as travel data — that is taken for granted in the United States.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. government radically reshaped its counter-terrorism agencies. It broke down walls between law enforcement and intelligence authorities, and created new coordinating institutions such as the Director of National Intelligence and National Counterterrorism Center.

Belgium, by contrast, is a patchwork country divided between French and Dutch speakers and with multiple levels of government.

Belgian security chiefs have repeatedly complained that they cannot handle up to 900 home-grown Islamist militants, among the highest per-capita rates in Europe. Belgium does not divulge the exact number of personnel in its security services and military intelligence, but security experts say they appear under-resourced compared to European counterparts.

“Add to that the problem of two languages (French and Flemish), lack of Arabic speakers, and weak coordination between national and local government, you have a huge discrepancy between threat and response,” said former CIA official and White House advisor Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institution.

(Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Jonathan Landay in Washington, Robin Emmott and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Writing by Warren Strobel; editing by Don Durfee and Stuart Grudgings)