Officers raided the houses of ten people who had returned from fighting in Syria after believing they were about to launch “terrorist attacks on a grand scale”.
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Two suspected jihadists were killed and a third has been “seriously injured” during a raid of a house in the eastern town of Verviers
Other raids took place in cities and towns – including Brussels, Molenbeek and Vilvorde – during a nationwide terrorism-related police operation which led to numerous people being arrested.
It is not known if they were linked to the terror attacks in France last week which saw 20 people killed.
The country has now raised its national security threat level in some areas, prosecutors said.
Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said heavily armed police had targeted a group returning from Syria who had been about to launch “large-scale” attacks and were part of an “active terrorist cell”.
Suspects had opened fire on police with assault weapons, 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,” he added.
Witnesses in Verviers reported hearing heavy gunfire for several minutes and at least three explosions during the raid on an apartment above a bakery in a quiet residential street.
A resident told television channel RTBF: “I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots. For the moment, I cannot tell you any more because I don’t dare go out to see what is happening.”
Another resident said: “Machine-guns were firing for about ten minutes.”
Witness Marylou Fletcher said: “We saw the police cars. We thought there was an accident then we heard something blowing up. We started running but did not understand what had happened. There was a lot of gunshots.”
Officials said no police or civilians were injured.
Last night, it was reported Belgium has the highest per capita rate of citizens who have travelled abroad to join jihadist groups. Authorities have estimated that around 300 Belgians have travelled to Syria
A Belgian ministry of justice source was last night reported as saying: “A second Paris has been avoided.”
The website of Belgian newspaper De Standaard stated: “The three men had been under long-term surveillance.
“They had come back from conflict zones, undoubtedly Syria, and they had planned an attack against a police station. They had Kalashnikovs.”
Belgium has been the focus of European counter-terrorism operations since police forces claimed that the weapons used in the Charlie Hebdo and Paris supermarket attacks last week were purchased from Belgian gangs in Brussels and Charleroi.
Yesterday, Belgian authorities detained a man for arms dealing and are investigating whether he supplied one of the gunmen.
Belgian media reported that a man had handed himself in to police in the southern city of Charleroi on Tuesday, saying he had been in touch with Amedy Coulibaly, the militant who took hostages in a Jewish supermarket in the French capital and was later killed by security forces.
According to the reports, the man said that he swindled Coulibaly in a car sale, but police later found evidence that the two were negotiating about the sale of ammunition for a 7.62mm calibre firearm.
Meanwhile, in Bulgaria a man has been arrested in connection with his ties to Charlie Hebdo attacker Cherif Kouachi.
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