BRUSSELS — A shooter killed two Swedish football supporters near the center of Brussels Monday evening, in what senior Belgian officials have condemned as a “brutal terrorist attack.”
In a press conference at 5 a.m. local time Tuesday morning, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the suspect was “a man of Tunisian origin” who “was staying illegally in our country,” adding that he was still at large.
De Croo said the shooter “targeted specifically Swedish football supporters,” and that a full investigation into the “brutal terrorist attack” is underway. Sweden was playing Belgium in a football match at the national stadium in northern Brussels, with hundreds of supporters following their team. The game was abandoned. Sweden has been on the front line of blowback from hard-line Islamists, due to repeated Quran burnings — including a spate this summer which led Stockholm to increase the country’s security threat level.
Heightened security measures will be implemented in sensitive locations in Belgium, particularly those associated with the Swedish community, De Croo said.
Belgium’s authorities said a suspect fired gunshots near Place Sainctelette and Boulevard du Neuvième de Ligne shortly after 7 p.m., with police immediately dispatched to the scene. A third person — a cab driver — was also injured by gunfire, and is currently recovering from “severe injuries,” De Croo said Tuesday.
A meeting of the National Security Council will be held at 3 p.m. Tuesday, the prime minister said.
“More than ever, it is peace that must guide us, acting as an antidote to terror,” De Croo said in his press conference. “Let’s keep our very Belgian attitude and, above all, let’s remain united in the face of this terrible attack.”
Late Monday night, Eric van Duyse, spokesperson for the federal prosecutor’s office, said on Belgian TV: “During the evening, a statement was posted on social networks and recorded by a person claiming to be the assailant. He claimed to be inspired by the Islamic State [ISIS].
“In the same statement, the victims’ Swedish nationality was mentioned as a probable motive for the act. At this stage, there is no evidence of any connection with the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” van Duyse added, referring to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas.
According to Belgian public broadcaster RTBF, police in the early hours of Tuesday were carrying out raids in municipality of Schaerbeek, where the suspected gunman is reportedly living. Belgian media have identified the suspect as a 45-year-old man known as Abdesalem L., who has Tunisian origins.
With the suspect still at large, European and some Flemish schools will be closed in the capital on Tuesday, while there’s “no decision” yet for French speaking schools, Caroline Désir, the education minister of the French-speaking Community of Belgium, told RTBF.
Sweden-Belgium football match abandoned
Brussels raised its terror threat level to four, the maximum on the scale, according to the Belgian National Crisis Center. The organization asked people to avoid unnecessary travel and show “increased vigilance.”
Belgian’s Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said she was “horrified” by the “terrorist attack,” adding, “All necessary means must be mobilized to combat radicalism.”
In a statement regarding the game, European football’s governing body, UEFA, said, “Following a suspected terrorist attack in Brussels this evening, it has been decided, after consultation with the two teams and the local police authorities, that the UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying match between Belgium and Sweden is abandoned.”
France toughens border controls
Tobias Billström, Sweden’s foreign minister, said: “Devastated by the news of two Swedish football supporters murdered in Brussels tonight and a third person being seriously wounded. All my thoughts are with their families and loved ones.”
Reaction has come in from EU leaders, too. French President Emmanuel Macron said “Our Europe is shaken,” while Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said, “Italy strongly condemns all forms of violence, fanaticism and terrorism and expresses its deepest condolences to the victims and their families.”
Following the attack, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced France would strengthen its border controls with Belgium, according to AFP.
Belgium’s Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne and De Croo were at the National Crisis Center, near the prime minister’s office in the Belgian capital, on Monday night.
Brussels Mayor Philippe Close said: “Following the shooting in Brussels, the police services are mobilizing to guarantee safety in and around our capital” in collaboration with Verlinden’s ministry.
European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said: “Terror and extremism cannot infiltrate in our societies. People must feel safe. Hate will not win.”
The story is being updated.
Elena Giordano contributed reporting.