Brussels police on Tuesday shot and fatally wounded an attacker accused of gunning down two Swedish football fans in what Belgium’s prime minister condemned as an act of “terrorist madness”.
Police opened fire on the suspect after he was cornered following an overnight manhunt in north central Brussels. He later died of his wounds, prosecutors said.
“The perpetrator of the Brussels terrorist attack was identified and has died,” Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden posted on social media.
“Our thanks go to the intelligence and security services and the public prosecutor’s office for their quick and decisive action last night and this morning,’ she added.
Earlier, Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the suspect was of Tunisian origin and had been living in the country illegally. In a social media post after the killings, the gunman had boasted of being inspired by the Islamic State extremist group.
“The terrorist attack that happened yesterday was committed with total cowardice, the attacker chose as a target two Swedish football fans,” de Croo told a news conference, adding that a third person — a taxi driver — was seriously wounded.
– ‘Devastated by the news’ –
“Terrorism strikes indiscriminately,” he said. “It aims to sow fear, mistrust and division in our free societies. Terrorists must know that they will never achieve their goals.
“They will never make us bend. Their hatred and violence only prove their powerlessness.”
Sweden expressed its devastation over the shooting — which took place just before a Belgium-Sweden football match Monday evening, with hundreds of Swedish fans in the city to cheer on their team.
Sweden has been at the centre of a bitter row this year with Muslim countries after police authorised several protests at which copies of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, were burned.
The gunman, wearing a hi-visibility orange jacket, fled on a scooter and Belgian authorities raised the terror alert for Brussels to level four or “very serious” — the highest — and level three nationally.
Several Belgian media named the suspect as Abdesalem L, aged 45.
Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborn said the failed asylum-seeker had been convicted of “common law offences” in Tunisia, but denied he was listed as a known terrorist threat.
Prosecutors said the attacker in his video had indicated the Swedish nationality of his victims was a motivation, and there appeared to be no links with the emotion triggered by the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East.
“Devastated by the news of two Swedish football supporters murdered in Brussels tonight and a third person being seriously wounded. All my thoughts are with their families and loved ones,” Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said.
“Swedish authorities work closely with their Belgian partners to find the murderer,” he added, in a social media post.
– Football match abandoned –
As news spread of the killings, the Group F European qualifier match between Belgium and Sweden was abandoned at half-time and some 35,000 fans were evacuated from the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels.
Officers provided extra protection for Swedish nationals at the game, escorting Sweden’s national players directly to the airport to leave safely, Belgium’s football association CEO told the RTBF channel.
“I am terribly sad. We agreed 100 percent not to play the second half because of the conditions and out of respect for the victims and their families,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson, quoted by the Swedish news agency TT.
Brussels’ Swedish Lutheran church was closed after the attacks on police advice, but was able to counsel some shocked and frightened compatriots by telephone, Pastor Fredrik Ollila told AFP.
The shooting took place in the city centre’s northern districts. Police had been alerted to the incident after 7:00 pm local time (1700 GMT).
In a video shared online by Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, the shooter is seen with an automatic weapon on his shoulder, fleeing on a scooter.
Four gunshots can be heard in the video.
A witness who spoke to LN24 channel described his shock during the incident.
– Stood frozen –
“I stood there frozen, I didn’t move. I was shocked by what happened, even now I am still in shock. It was a man who came, pushed me, told me to stop running if I wanted to stay alive,” said the witness, who gave his name as Sulayman.
Belgium was already been the target of an attack claimed by IS extremists in March 2016, when suicide combers hit Brussels’ main airport and on the metro system, killing 32 people.