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Thu 26 Nov 2015 11:54 AM

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Brussels lockdown ends but manhunt goes on

Government says armed militant cell may be ready to strike

Brussels lockdown ends but manhunt goes on
(AFP/Getty Images)

The Brussels
metro and schools reopened on Wednesday as the Belgian capital edged back to
normal after a four-day security lockdown but the hunt went on for militants
police fear may mount a Paris-style mass attack.

Troops and
armoured vehicles outside reopened underground stations -- about half of the
network remains closed -- and police outside schools provided a reminder of the
threat the government said was so imminent that it raised its alert level on
Saturday in Brussels to the maximum, where it remains.

There was less
evidence of the raids and searches that have been carried out periodically in
the city since two suicide bombers from Brussels blew themselves up on November
13 during the ISIL attack on Paris. The brother of one of them is still on the
run, along with at least one suspected accomplice.

Of more than
two dozen people detained in the past 12 days in Belgium, all but five have
been released. Police have not reported finding substantial amounts of weaponry
which the government says it fears a local jihadist cell could be about to use
in a rerun of the violence in France that killed 130 people.

"There are
maybe 10 or more people in Belgium, maybe in the neighbouring countries,
present in the territory to organise some terrorist attacks," Foreign
Minister Didier Reynders, speaking English, told ABC television. Aides later
said the figure was based on an assumption of how many people would have to be
involved to mount attacks like those in Paris.

Sister
newspapers L'Echo and De Tijd quoted unidentified sources saying security
operations on Sunday had foiled a major attack in Brussels. Officials declined
comment and judicial sources told public broadcaster RTBF that Sunday's raids,
during which 16 people were detained, were not intended to thwart attacks but
rather to "give the hornets' nest a good kick".

Of five people
held in Brussels on terrorism charges, two admit driving Salah Abdeslam,
brother of suicide bomber Brahim Abdeslam, back from Paris to Brussels -- a
six-hour round trip -- just after the attacks but deny any knowledge of the
plot.

Salah Abdeslam,
26, is suspected of being the eighth attacker mentioned by ISIL in its claim of
responsibility. The seven others died. A suicide vest found in a Paris litter
bin and mobile phone records have suggested that he may have had a change of
heart.

A third man
charged is accused of driving him somewhere after he reached Brussels on
November 14.

The fourth
indictment is based on handguns and bloodstains found in the car of another
man. The fifth person who has been charged has yet to be identified, but
prosecutors have said that Salah Abdeslam is still at large. Police have also
put out an international arrest warrant for Mohamed Abrini, 30.

Abrini was
filmed driving a car with Abdeslam in northern France two days before the
attacks. Like several involved, Belgian media said on Wednesday, Abrini had
fought in Syria and came from the same Brussels borough as the Abdeslam
brothers and Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected planner killed last week.

Foreign
Minister Reynders gave a number of interviews to foreign media, notably in
France, to rebuff criticism Belgium had been lax in monitoring radicals. More,
per head, have gone from Belgium to Syria than any other European state.

"You
shouldn't always look somewhere else for reasons for what you're going through
at home. We are tackling head on what is happening in some of our
boroughs," he told France's Canal Plus. "When you have 130 dead in
one city, it means something's gone wrong. It's a mistake, I think, to infer
from that that what went wrong went wrong only abroad."

Some 200 extra
soldiers guarded Brussels metro stations and an additional 300 police have been
drafted in from elsewhere to protect schools in the city, causing knock-on
effects.

Thursday's
Europa League soccer match between Club Bruges and the Italian side Napoli was
to be played behind closed doors because police are too tied up elsewhere to
manage the crowd.

But the
weekend's Davis Cup tennis final between Belgium and Britain is due to go ahead
as planned in Ghent, west of the capital.