Man held after car speeds into Antwerp shopping street

Police officers stand next to a car which had entered the main pedestrianised shopping street in the city at high speed, in Antwerp, Belgium, 23 March 2017. Anouk Frankly/Twitter Handout via REUTERS

By Clement Rossignol

ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) – A man drove a car at speed into a pedestrianized street in Antwerp on Thursday, forcing people to jump out of its path, a day after an assailant rammed a vehicle into crowds in central London, police said.

The car sped away in the Belgian port leaving no one injured, but prosecutors said police later arrested a man suspected of being the driver, naming him as Mohamed R., a 39-year-old French national of North African origin.

Antwerp police found knives in the vehicle and a canister containing an unknown substance that bomb disposal officers were checking, Belgian federal prosecutors’ office said in a statement.

The Belgian federal prosecutors did not give details of any motive but said they had been called in “based on all these elements and the events in London yesterday”.

A French source later told Reuters that authorities there believed the suspect had not been trying to hit anyone, but was probably drunk and trying to escape a police check.

The source described the suspect as a Tunisian national living in France, known to police for common law crimes. There was no immediate comment on the source’s account from Belgium.

The car entered Antwerp’s busy De Meir shopping street at around 11 a.m. (1000 GMT), said police.

Patrolling soldiers tried to stop it but it went through a red light and drove off, said a police spokesman. The vehicle later came to a halt near Antwerp’s waterfront, it added without going into further details.

“I want to thank the fast response team which arrested the man in a professional manner and may have prevented much worse,” Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever said.

The London attacks came exactly one year after twin bombings at Brussels’ airport and its metro killed 32 people. More police were visible on the streets of Antwerp on Thursday afternoon.

The London attacker who killed three people near parliament before being shot dead was named on Thursday as British-born Khalid Masood, who was once investigated by MI5 intelligence officers over concerns about violent extremism.

(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Robin Emmott and Andrew Heavens)