Security forces arrest man trying to drive into crowd in Antwerp

The incident was the third in a week in the European Union after attacks at Orly airport in Paris and London. Photograph:( AFP )

AFP Antwerp, Belgium Mar 23, 2017, 02.20 PM (IST)

Belgian security forces arrested a French national Thursday after he tried to drive into a crowd of shoppers at high speed in the port city of Antwerp, officials said.

Authorities found a rifle and bladed weapons in the car after the 39-year-old man tried to flee and was detained in the northern city, prosecutors said.

The incident was the third in a week in the European Union after attacks at Orly airport in Paris and London, and came a day after the first anniversary of the Brussels suicide bombings that killed 32 people.

"A vehicle with French plates has tried to drive at high speed into the Meir (shopping street) so that pedestrians had to jump aside," Antwerp police chief Serge Muyters told a news conference.

Our army colleagues forced the driver to stop but he pulled away and ran a red traffic light. We sent a special forces team and the car and the driver were stopped,' Antwerp police chief Serge Muyters told a news conference
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"Our army colleagues forced the driver to stop but he pulled away and ran a red traffic light. We sent a special forces team and the car and the driver were stopped," he added.

"A man in camouflage was taken away."

Images on social media showed investigators searching a burgundy-coloured vehicle near the bank of the Scheldt river.

'Very high speed'
Belgium's federal prosecutor later said the man was a French national living in France identified only as Mohamed R, who was born in May 1977.

The prosecutor's office said he was driving at "very high speed" and that "at different times pedestrians were placed in danger."

"Different arms were found in the boot, bladed weapons, a pump-action rifle and a container of as yet unidentified liquid," the prosecutor said in a statement.

Bomb disposal experts are still at the scene.

"In light of what has initially been gathered, and taking into account what happened in London yesterday, it has been decided to send this case to the federal prosecutor," the statement added.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the government was "following this situation as it develops" in the Flemish-speaking northern city.

"We continue to be vigilant. Our security services did an excellent job in Antwerp, thanks," he tweeted.

Meir is the main shopping street in Antwerp's historic centre and is mostly pedestrianised. It is one of the country's biggest shopping areas.

The Antwerp incident will put Europe further on edge after the attack on the British parliament killed three people plus the attacker, and a man was shot dead at Paris's Orly airport after grabbing a soldier's rifle.

With soldiers deployed at key sites, Belgium has been on high alert since March 22 last year when suicide bombers attacked Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station, killing 32 people and leaving more than 320 wounded.

Belgium suffered a further shock in August when a machete-wielding man shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) attacked two policewomen in the industrial town of Charleroi.

He badly injured one in the face, before a third officer shot him dead. 

IS fighters coming home
Islamic State jihadists have claimed responsibility for a number of attacks using vehicles in Europe in recent months, including Wednesday's carnage in London.

An attacker rammed a lorry into crowds in the French city of Nice in July last year, killing 86 people. A similar attack claimed 12 lives at a Christmas market in Berlin in December.

On Wednesday, Belgium's King Philippe and Queen Mathilde led ceremonies commemorating the Brussels bombings, which were also claimed by IS.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon told AFP in the run-up to the anniversary that tighter security had made Belgium safer than it was a year ago.

However he said it faced the threat of continuing radicalisation at home and from battle-hardened fighters who may return from the Middle East.

Belgium's federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told AFP in November that the cell that carried out the Brussels bombings, and was involved in the Paris attacks, had got its orders from high up in the IS command. 

Numbering around 500, Belgium is the European Union's largest per capita source of so-called foreign jihadist fighters, but Jambon said none had left the country for the Middle East since January 2016.

(AFP)