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Manhunt continues for armed soldier on the run in Limburg
The manhunt for heavily armed soldier Jurgen Conings continued on Thursday with police concentrating their search on the Hoge Kempen National Park in the east of the province of Limburg.
A total of 250 police officers and soldiers have been involved in the search for Conings, who is on a terror watch list because of his extreme right sympathies, after he managed to leave an army camp earlier this week carrying heavy weapons. He also left behind a suicide note in which he spoke in threatening language about the government and virologists.
Conings was spotted in Leopoldsburg on Tuesday and his car was later found on a road leading to the Hoge Kempen National Park, which has now been closed off by the authorities. Four missile launchers and ammunition were found in the car. It is believed that Conings is still armed with a submachine gun and a pistol. Shots were reportedly heard in the area of the national park yesterday evening, which one source said may have come from the military.
"There is strong evidence that the man may be in that park," the federal prosecutor's office said. Investigators believe that Conings would not have swapped to another car and that he has been travelling on foot since Tuesday.
Several police vehicles and at least one armoured personnel carrier from the military were seen arriving at the park late on Tuesday. Earlier in the day, trucks with police horses also arrived at a parking lot on the nature reserve. The officers and soldiers at the scene are currently conducting sweeps in three demarcated zones "based on elements of the investigation," the prosecutor's office said.
The Hoge Kempen National Park is an area of more than 12,000 hectares of forest and heathland, with multiple entrance gates. According to Raf Terwingen, mayor of Maasmechelen, the park cannot possibly be closed off completely. "But at entrance points where we know people go into the park, we are going to put up signs and fences as soon as possible to make it clear to the people that they better not enter the park," Terwingen said.
On Wednesday, federal police also issued an official all-points bulletin (APB). "On Monday 17 May 2021, 46-year-old Jurgen Conings left his home in Dilsen-Stokkem in the morning," the APB statement read. "Conings is about 1 metres 80 tall and muscular. He is bald and has several tattoos, including on his upper arms. At the time of his disappearance, he was wearing a Timberland T-shirt.”
According to reports, the wanted soldier was attached to the barracks of Peutie, in Flemish Brabant, and lives in Dilsen-Stokkem, in Limburg. He has far-right sympathies and is also on the list of potentially dangerous and violent people maintained by the Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis (Cuta).
In a farewell letter found earlier this week, he spoke in threatening language aimed at the government and virologists. He allegedly threatened violent action because he could no longer have his life controlled by politicians and virologists. Earlier, Conings had threatened head virologist Marc Van Ranst. On Tuesday, Van Ranst was moved, together with his family, to a safehouse.
Conings had already been sanctioned by the army for his threats. He had been given an administrative position. That penalty was later overturned, allowing him to become a shooting instructor.
In addition to the aforementioned letter, Conings also left a second suicide note to his girlfriend and a third letter was also found in the car that was recovered on Tuesday. In this third letter, Conings allegedly threatened the army itself. "You have trained me to be who I am, I am going to use that against you now," he is said to have written in it.
On Tuesday it was revealed that Conings was heavily armed, with one or more rocket launchers, a submachine gun and a pistol. He allegedly took those weapons from the barracks on the grounds that he would be organising a target practice as part of his job as a shooting instructor. Some of those heavy weapons were found in his car on Tuesday.
The prosecutor's office believes that despite the discovery of the heavy weapons yesterday, Conings may still be armed. It is believed to be an FN P90 submachine gun, a smaller pistol and a bulletproof vest. "In the event of an encounter, the police must be notified immediately, without contacting the person concerned," the police statement read.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised as to how Conings could have gotten so far with what are essentially weapons of war.
“The real question is of course: how is this possible?” asked Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo, adding that 46-year-old Conings had been on the radar of Cuta, which assesses terror threats.
“Someone who has already made threats in the past — that this man within the military has access to weapons and can even take those weapons with him,” De Croo said. “It is unacceptable.”