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Brussels shooting: Terror threat level downgraded after suspect is shot dead in Schaerbeek

07:24 18/10/2023

The terror threat in Brussels has been reduced to level 3 following the death of 45-year-old Tunisian national Abdesalem Lassoued on Tuesday morning - the suspect in the shooting of two Swedish football fans in the city centre.

Belgium’s security council decided to drop the threat level following the “neutralisation” of the suspect and investigators' belief that he was operating as a lone-wolf rather than part of a terrorist cell.

Nevertheless, the council called on people to remain vigilant. Certain sites, such as Brussels Airport and the country's nuclear reactors, will be subject to increased security.

The terror threat is now level 3 across the whole of country. It was raised to level 4 in the Brussels region on Monday evening following the fatal shooting.

The man suspected of killing two Swedish football fans in Brussels on Monday evening died following a shoot-out with police, confirmed the federal prosecutor.

Following an intense overnight manhunt in the capital, 45-year-old Lassoued was intercepted by police in Rue Van Oost in the Cage aux Ours district of Schaerbeek on Tuesday morning.

“Shortly after eight o'clock this morning, a witness informed the Brussels police that he had spotted the alleged perpetrator of the attack in a drinking establishment in Schaerbeek,” said the prosecutor’s office.

The suspect was shot in the chest. Emergency services attempted to resuscitate him before transferring him to Saint-Luc hospital in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. He was confirmed dead at 9.38.

The scooter that Lassoued used to flee Monday night’s attack was towed away from the scene. Rue Van Oost remained sealed off all day as police continued their investigation.

Interior minister Annelies Verlinden told local media that an automatic weapon found on the “neutralised person” was the same as the one used during the attack on Swedish football fans. A bag of clothes was also located in the cafe.

Illegal residence in Belgium

Although the gunman was known to police, he was not on OCAM’s list of terror suspects, Verlinden said. The federal judicial police in Antwerp had planned a meeting on Tuesday about the man, added Verlinden. She pointed out that it was not possible for him to have known about the meeting.

The secretary of state for asylum and migration Nicole de Moor reported earlier on Tuesday that the suspect had submitted an asylum application in Belgium in November 2019, which received a negative response in October 2020. He then “disappeared from the radar”.

Prime minister Alexander De Croo said on RTL-TVi on Tuesday that he wanted an answer regarding the suspect’s presence on Belgian soil. Lassoued lived with his wife and child in the Helmet area of Schaerbeek.

De Croo said he did not understand why a person who had received multiple orders to leave the territory was still in Belgium. He wanted answers on why he had not been followed by the services concerned.

“He had in fact received an order to leave the territory. He was not in an asylum centre, he was in Brussels, he no longer had a registered address, and therefore the services were not able to pursue him," he added.

The suspect had previously lived in Sweden but was not known to the police, said Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson in a press conference. He added that it was clear that the shootings were directly targeted at his country.

De Croo has invited his Swedish counterpart to visit Belgium on Wednesday for a joint homage to the victims and tribute to the police services. “We wish the people of Sweden strength and courage to get through these difficult times,” he wrote on X. A visit to the scene of the attack is planned.

Monday evening’s attack in Place Sainctelette

In the attack in the Place Sainctelette area of Brussels on Monday evening, two Swedish football fans were killed and a third seriously injured, confirmed federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw.

He said the attacker, travelling on a scooter and armed with an assault rifle, opened fire on the Swedish supporters as they got out of a taxi. He chased them into the entrance of a building where he shot them before fleeing the scene.

Shortly after, a video was shared on social media. Speaking in Arabic with a strong Tunisian accent, the suspect said he killed them in the name of Allah.

One of the victims of the attack was a younger man who lived in Switzerland, according to the country’s department of foreign affairs (FDFA). It said the older victim was from Stockholm and another man, also in his 70s, was injured and remains in hospital.

All three were on their way to King Baudouin Stadium in Heysel where Sweden was playing Belgium in a Euro 2024 qualifying match. The game was abandoned after half-time and Swedish supporters were later provided with a police escort to ensure their safety.

Following the attack, anti-terror centre OCAM raised the threat level of the Brussels region to 4, while the rest of the country passed from level 2 to 3. The alert level in Brussels has now been lowered to level 3.

Heightened security

The shooting occurred during heightened security concerns due to the Israel-Hamas conflict. Belgium’s federal prosecutor is not ruling out a link to the situation in the Middle East.

The Belgian government agency that handles asylum seekers, Fedasil, and the Office for Foreigners are under increased vigilance, without additional measures. Fedasil said on Tuesday that it was following the crisis centre’s recommendations in allowing staff to work from home where possible.

The Foreigners' Office in Boulevard Pacheco in Brussels also remained open. “Vigilance is increased, but there is no concrete indication that other precautionary measures would be necessary,” said spokeswoman Paulien Blondeel.

Ikea stores were also open for business as usual with reinforced security measures, said a spokesperson for the Swedish furniture brand. There are eight Ikea stores in Belgium, including one in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht.

Swedish diplomatic offices were also subject to increased surveillance, according to Verlinden.

Photo: James Arthur Gekiere/Belga

Written by The Bulletin