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Removal of troops from city streets angers Antwerp's mayor

Illustration shows soldiers near the building of DPG media near Antwerp central station which was partly evacuated after they received a threatening letter, in Antwerp Monday 24 May 2021. (BELGA PHOTO KRISTOF VAN ACCOM)
06:29 23/08/2021

As of 1 September, the military will no longer patrol around sites that could be the target of terrorist attacks, such as the Jewish quarter of Antwerp, with the security of these areas becoming the responsibility of local police forces.

Bart De Wever, the mayor of Antwerp and president of the nationalist N-VA party, has been outraged by the decision and has accused the government of betrayal.

"After the much-appreciated efforts of the military, the federal government will no longer contribute in any way to the security of institutions subject to an increased terrorist threat,” he said. “The interior minister did not keep her word. It is a slap in the face for the Jewish community."

Minister Annelies Verlinden defended herself by saying: "Bart De Wever knows the legal and budgetary context in which we have sought a solution, through consultation,” she wrote on Twitter. “There is no question of having to keep our word. I have great confidence in the Antwerp police force."

The military has been responsible for ensuring security in certain districts in Brussels, Antwerp and Liège since 15 January 2015 as part of the "Vigilant Guardian" mission. In the wake of the attacks on the Jewish Museum in Brussels and those on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, this decision was taken a few days after the foiled attack in Verviers where two suspected jihadists lost their lives.

While the maximum number of soldiers on the street reached 1,800 at the height of the terrorist threat, the federal government limited their number to a maximum of 550 in June 2018.

In December 2019, the former defence minister Philippe Goffin reiterated his intention to reduce their number on the street to 200 staff and 100 in reserve. After the Vivaldi coalition government took power in October 2020, it was finally decided that "Vigilant Guardian" would end completely on 1 September 2021.

At the time of the decision to deploy military personnel on the streets of the major Belgian cities in 2015, the N-VA was part of the ruling government and was instrumental in forcing the issue through parliament and persuading all parties to agree.  

Since then, the situation has changed, and the N-VA is now in opposition. With Flemish Christian-Democrat Annelies Verlinden as interior minister and Ludivine Dedondere from the French-speaking Socialist Party as defence minister, the nationalist party and Bart De Wever appear powerless to stop a reversal of the policy they fought hard to put in place.

Written by Nick Amies