Belgian police killed two men who opened fire on them during one of about a dozen raids on Thursday against an Islamist group that federal prosecutors said was about to launch “terrorist attacks on a grand scale”.
The suspects were shot dead in the eastern town of Verviers after they opened fire on police with automatic weapons on Thursday evening.
Officials say they had returned from Syria and planned imminent attacks on police targets. Another suspect was wounded before being arrested.
All three were citizens of Belgium, which has one of the biggest concentrations of European Islamists fighting in Syria.
Speaking after Thursday’s raid in Verviers, near the German border, Prosecutor Eric Van Der Sypt said the terror threat level had been raised to three – the second highest.
Referring to the raid itself, he said: “The suspects immediately and for several minutes opened fire with military weaponry and handguns on the special units of the federal police before they were neutralised.”
After the operation, four Kalashnikovs, bomb-making equipment and police clothing were found, according to local media. Security forces remain in the Verviers area.
Police are expected to provide more details at a briefing on Friday.
“Operations on the ground are now over. We are now exploiting the information [from the overnight anti-terror operations],” Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told French TV station iTele.
Some Jewish schools in Antwerp and Brussels were closed on Friday, after they were informed that they could be potential targets, Belgian newspaper Joods Actueel reported.
Anti-terror raids also took place late on Thursday in the capital Brussels and surrounding towns, including Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Schaerbeek.
Earlier that day, two suspected Islamists were arrested in the Brussels suburb of Zaventem, Belgian media reported.
Belgian officials say more than 300 people have left Belgium to fight with Islamic militant groups in Syria and Iraq.
The country is thought to have the highest number of foreign fighters per capita in Europe who have taken part in fighting in Syria.
Coming a week after Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in Paris, the incident fueled fears across Europe of young Muslims returning radicalised from Syria. But the Belgian probe had been under way before the Jan. 7 attack on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and officials saw no obvious link between the two.
In recent weeks, European security services received indications of an ominous possibility: that ISIS may have started directing European extremists in Syria and Iraq to launch terrorist attacks back in their home countries, the Belgian counterterrorism official said.
With half a million Muslims, mostly of French-speaking North African descent, among its 11 million people, Belgium has seen similar discontent to that in France among young, unemployed children of immigrants in blighted, post-industrial towns like Verviers, once a major center for wool and other textile mills.