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Conings still at large as defence restricts 11 more soldiers’ access to weapons
The search for extreme right sympathiser Jürgen Conings (pictured) continues as authorities address the soldier directly in a message and the military limits access to weapons of 11 more soldiers flagged up by its security services.
Conings has been on the run since early last week after he stole weapons from the Leopoldsburg military base and left behind three notes, two of them threatening violence against government and the military in general and one specifically threatening the life of Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst.
Conings was seen in Van Ranst’s neighbourhood in Willebroek on Monday evening. The virologist and his family were moved from their home to a safe house.
The 46-year-old Conings has been vocal in his criticism of government measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and is involved with neo-Nazi movements. His name appears on a list of potentially dangerous extremists compiled by Belgium’s Co-ordination Unit for Threat Assessment (Cuta). He is the only member of the military on the list.
North Station searched
He had been disciplined by the military for involvement with one such far-right group and given a purely administrative job. Last year, however, he was transferred from Flemish Brabant to the Leopoldsburg site in Limburg, where he was allowed to become a training instructor and thus had access to munitions.
He stole rocket launchers, a submachine gun, a pistol and a bullet-proof jacket from weapons depots in Leopoldsburg on Monday. His car was found at an entrance to the Hoge Kempen National Park on Tuesday. The rocket launchers were found in the car, but Conings is thought to be armed with the other weapons.
A massive search began in the park, and visitors told to stay away. Despite the efforts of several hundred police and military personnel, he has not been found.
The search of the park has now ended, and authorities have since carried out searches of homes and of North Station in Brussels, based on a tip. Traffic in and out of North Station was brought to a halt yesterday evening for 90 minutes, but no trace of Conings was found.
Sympathisers with Jürgen Conings’ far-right ideologies and coronavirus conspiracy theories marched in the Hoge Kempen National Park ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA
Some 200 people, meanwhile, gathered in Maasmechelen at the weekend to march through the national park in a show of support for Conings, who they see as a kind of anti-hero of far-right and anti-corona ideologies. Several thousand people signed on to Facebook pages in support of the man, now officially called a terrorist by the federal prosecutor.
The prosecutor has ordered that a case be opened against Conings for “attempted murder and illegal possession of weapons in a terrorist context”. Prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw took to the media at the weekend to say that the manhunt was “to guarantee the safety of the public as well as Conings himself”.
Van Leeuw asked that residents of Flemish Brabant and Limburg, where Conings has been spotted over the last several days “remain calm until we can conclude this search”. He then said: “We ask Jürgen Conings to make contact with someone he trusts.”
For its part, the defence department has restricted 11 more soldiers’ access to weapons. The 11 personnel were under investigation by the military’s own security and intelligence department for their adherence to extreme right ideologies and conspiracy theories. They will also not receive clearance to be informed of any sensitive military information.
Defence under fire
The defence department has been under fire since the incident began of not taking far-right sympathies among its soldiers seriously and allowing its one soldier flagged up by Cuta to have access to munitions. Politicians are also asking how someone could vacate a military base with rocket launchers and machine guns.
“There are strict regulations around that, and it is only done in exceptional circumstances,” said Wouter De Vriendt (Groen), who sits on the federal parliament’s defence commission. “These procedures must be thoroughly reviewed.”
He also said that the military is no place for people with extremist ideas. “Are we really going to wait until somebody shoots politicians?” he said on a talk show last week. “This incident has to jolt us into action in taking these cases more seriously.”