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Man throws grenades at and fires on shoppers in Liege, Belgium

A man with a history of drug and weapons offenses hurled grenades and sprayed bullets into a square crowded with Christmas shoppers Tuesday in eastern Belgium, killing at least three people and injuring scores, authorities said.

The attacker also died at the scene in the city of Liege, although the circumstances of his death remained murky. Local news reports cited witnesses who said he shot himself, though whether deliberately or accidentally was unclear.

Authorities said they did not know what motivated the attacker, identified as Nordine Amrani, 33, whose rampage sent bystanders fleeing in panic.

"He has no history of terrorist acts," prosecutor Danielle Reynders told reporters.

He had, however, been summoned for questioning by police Tuesday, Reynders said, without elaborating on the reason.

Among the dead were two boys, 17 and 15, she said. The teenagers had just finished taking their school exams, said Liege Mayor Willy Demeyer, according to local news reports.

A 75-year-old woman was also killed, Reynders said, and at least 75 people were injured, some seriously. Belgian news reports later said that the number of those wounded exceeded 120.

There were also reports Tuesday evening that two more victims had died in a hospital, a young man and a girl about 2 years old.

The attack began shortly after noon in the busy square in central Liege known as Place St. Lambert, site of the city's soaring cathedral, its courthouse and a bustling Christmas market.

Reynders said Amrani threw three grenades, which exploded at a bus shelter. Armed with a rifle and a handgun, he then started firing into the square.

"I heard a loud boom," witness Dimitri Degryse told the Associated Press. "I thought it was something on my car that was broken or something. Then a few seconds after, a second boom, and I saw all the glass breaking. I saw people running, screaming."

Shoppers stampeded out of the plaza seeking safety, Reynders said. Video showed cobblestones stained with blood.

In the pandemonium, early news reports from the scene suggested a coordinated assault by more than one gunman, perhaps by a gang trying to spring a defendant from the courthouse. Authorities hastily warned residents to stay in their homes and offices.

Later, authorities said Amrani acted alone. He had been convicted of possessing drugs and firearms.

On its website, the newspaper De Morgen called Amrani a "gun freak" who was sentenced to nearly five years in prison in 2008 after police found a cache of weapons and nearly 3,000 marijuana plants at his home. He was released about a year ago, Reuters reported.

Place St. Lambert and surrounding streets were shut down for hours but slowly returned to normal. Belgium's newly installed prime minister, Elio Di Rupo, and King Albert II and Queen Paola visited the riverside city to pay their respects.

"There are no words to describe this tragedy," Di Rupo said.

henry.chu@latimes.com

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