Belgium extends highest terrorism alert in Brussels
Steven Devisscher's bar in downtown Brussels normally teems with more than 200 customers quaffing specialty Belgian beers on a Saturday night. Not last night.
After a government warning of an "imminent" Paris-style terrorist attack, his doors were locked and his lights off.
"People are afraid," said Mr Devisscher, the manager of Monk, a short walk from the city's historic Grand Place. He didn't need to turn people away because the city was empty.
"The police wanted us to close; we still decided to stay open, but there was nobody about. The streets are dead."
It was a scene repeated across the Belgian capital as restaurants told of cancellations throughout the day. Many didn't open at all. The Grand Place, famed for its chocolate shops and ornate cafes, was practically deserted as Brussels went into lockdown.
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People had woken up to the news the government had raised the Belgian capital's terror alert to its highest level, signalling a very serious and imminent threat.
The city shut down its metro system and shopping malls, cancelled sporting and cultural events and recommended bars, cafes and night clubs in the busiest areas to shut after 6pm.
Belgium police widened their search on Sunday for armed Islamist extremists, with officials saying more than one militant was at large in the city.
"It is a threat based on the theory that it would take place with arms and explosives, maybe even in several places and at the same time," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said.
Asked whether the Brussels threat related to just Salah Abdeslam, one of two brothers believed to have been involved in the Paris attacks and now the focus of an international manhunt, Interior Minister Jan Jambon told broadcaster VRT "unfortunately not".
"It is a threat that goes beyond just that one person," he said. "We're looking at more things, that's why we've put in place such a concentration of resources."
The city was a ghost town over the weekend. Photo: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS
Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, was quoted by broadcaster RTBF as saying there were "two terrorists" in the Brussels area ready to carry out violence.
The heightened security in one of Europe's most important cities, home to NATO and European Union institution, came a week after gunmen and suicide bombers caused carnage in restaurants, cafes and a concert hall in Paris, 130 dead and many more injured.
The connection to Brussels is strong: at least three jihadists behind the Paris terrorist attacks lived in the Brussels capital, with Salah Abdeslam coming from the Brussels district of Molenbeek.
Bars like Monk will lose thousands of euros by staying shut on a Saturday night, Mr Devisscher said. Yet they may remain closed for longer.
"I think it's better to wait – I don't know how long this will stay – maybe until they catch the guy?"
Brussels' cobbled alleyways that would normally be full of drinkers and diners were almost empty. In place of tourists and revellers, it was soldiers and armed police officers who patrolled past shuttered, dark cafes. Their armoured vehicles rolled down empty streets hung with Christmas decorations.
"When we saw on the news this morning that we were on a level four alert, we decided to change our restaurant plans and moved the evening to a friend's house instead," Brussels resident Pauline Haon said.
"Later in the afternoon, the Callens Cafe, where we reserved a table for 10, called us to say they were closed because of the terror alert and now we even have friends that were supposed to come tonight who no longer want to leave their house."
Cafe Roskam, with its fashionable art-deco wooden bar and tiled flooring, was supposed to be throwing its 11th anniversary party. Instead, it welcomed just a small group of drinkers who said they refused to be intimidated.
"We aren't going to succumb to the panic," said Thierry Rivet as he smoked a hand-rolled cigarette on the cafe's doorstep. "I am out having a drink while everyone is telling you to stay at home. If we have to always live in fear of dying in an attack tomorrow, then we won't be doing much at all any more."
The terror threat has left many too scared to go out. Photo: YVES HERMAN / REUTERS
The terror threat level was last raised to 4, the maximum, in January, after Belgian police killed two suspected terrorists in a shootout in eastern Belgium that they said prevented a major attack on law-enforcement officers.
This time, the target was feared to be public gatherings as the authorities warned of "an attack similar to the one that unfolded in Paris."
Belgium's National Security Council was meeting on Sunday afternoon to discuss the threats and the government's next steps. That will determine if it will be business as usual on Monday morning.
The Brussels metro system will probably reopen by Monday, Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told VRT television. "We don't want to paralyse Brussels economically," he said.
The British Davis Cup team on Sunday delayed travelling to Ghent for next weekend's Cup final, though International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty said plans for the final would continue.
At the Bar des Amis, manager Yezen Malouf remained defiant, keeping his doors open as he monitored the latest news on a laptop propped on the bar and played music to keep his nervous customers calm.
"The regulars aren't here tonight, it's just some tourists with nowhere else to grab a drink," he said. Three staff were on duty in place of the usual eight.
"It's a quiet day – it's a quiet walk around the city tonight," Mr Malouf said.