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Brussels on highest terror alert as authorities warn of ‘serious and imminent’ threat

Police and soldiers on security duty inside Galerie de la Reine in Brussels on Sunday.

Police and soldiers on security duty inside Galerie de la Reine in Brussels on Sunday.

(Stephanie Lecocq / European Pressphoto Agency)

Schools and the subway will be closed Monday in the Belgian capital of Brussels because of a “serious and imminent” threat of a coordinated terrorist attack similar to the recent strikes that killed scores in Paris, the Belgian prime minister said Sunday.

“We fear an attack like in Paris, with several individuals, perhaps in several places,” Prime Minister Charles Michel, who chaired a meeting of the country’s national security leadership, said at a press conference in Brussels.

Authorities also recommended that shopping centers and malls be closed and that sports activities be canceled.

The Belgian capital has been on edge since the Nov. 13 Paris attacks and the discovery that Brussels was a key hub for the terrorist plot, for which the Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility.

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Belgian prosecutors announced early Monday that police had detained 16 people in 22 raids, the Associated Press reported. All but three of the raids were in Brussels; the rest were in Charleroi, in the country’s south.

Belgian authorities have beefed up the police and military presence in the capital, which houses offices of a number of international organizations, including the European Union and NATO.

In recent days, residents of Brussels, a city of more than 1 million, were urged to avoid train stations and other venues where crowds congregate.

Authorities said the threat level for Brussels would remain at four, the highest on a four-tier scale, but would stay at level three for the rest of the country.

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The Belgian prime minister said there were fears that “several individuals with arms and explosives could launch an attack ... perhaps even in several places.”

The warning suggests that officials have concrete intelligence that a plot is in the works, but are not yet able to disrupt it.

In his comments to the news media, the Belgian prime minister also appealed to people not to overreact.

“We urge the public not to give in to panic, to stay calm,” the prime minister said. “We have taken the measures that are necessary.”

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A Belgian citizen, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, is suspected to have been the ringleader of the attacks on Paris, which left at least 130 dead and more than 300 injured.

Abaaoud, of Moroccan descent, appears to have recruited accomplices from his home neighborhood, the Brussels borough of Molenbeek St. Jean.

The gritty district, across an industrial canal from downtown Brussels, is home to many immigrants, especially from Morocco. Police have conducted a number of searches there since the strikes on Paris;

Abaaoud and two confederates were killed in a police raid Wednesday on an apartment where they were holed up in the northern Paris suburb of St. Denis, French authorities said.

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A fugitive in the Paris killings, Salah Abdeslam, 26, entered Belgium in a car arriving from France the morning after the attacks, authorities said. Abdeslam, a French citizen who formerly lived in Belgium, is the subject of a massive manhunt.

His brother, Ibrahim Abdeslam, also a former Belgium resident, killed himself during the Paris attacks, authorities said.

French authorities say seven attackers were killed in the Paris attacks, either by suicide bombs or shot by police.

Another Paris suicide attacker, Bilal Hadfi, also formerly lived in Belgium, authorities have said. He was among those killed.

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Meanwhile, French police on Sunday asked for public help in identifying one of the Nov. 13 suicide assailants, whose body was found outside the Stade de France national stadium north of Paris, one of the terror targets. Police circulated a photograph of the man on social media and issued a public appeal seeking people to come forward and identify the slain suspect.

Twitter: @mcdneville

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