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Belgian police kill Tunisian man suspected of killing 2 Swedish soccer fans

Authorities in the Belgian capital shot and killed a Tunisian national on Tuesday hours after they say he gunned down three Swedish soccer fans, killing two of them, and posted a video online in which he claimed credit for the attack and said the Quran was “a red line for which he is ready to sacrifice himself.”

Investigators are still trying to determine the motive for Monday night’s attack, which happened not far from where Belgium’s men’s soccer team was hosting Sweden in a European Championships qualifier. The match was suspended at halftime and the more than 35,000 fans were kept inside the stadium as a precaution while the attacker was at large.

Amateur videos of the attack posted on social media showed a man wearing an orange fluorescent vest pull up on a scooter, take out a large weapon and open fire on people getting out of a taxi. He chased them into a building to gun them down. He was also filmed calmly loading his weapon as cars drove by slowly.

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Sweden’s foreign ministry said the men who were killed were in their 60s and 70s, and the man who was wounded is in his 70s and remains hospitalized.

Hours after the suspect disappeared into the night and a manhunt was launched, Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in Brussels has been identified and has died.”

She thanked Belgium’s intelligence and security services, as well as prosecutors, “for their swift and decisive action.” The man was shot in the Schaerbeek neighborhood near where the attack happened.

Federal prosecutors said later that the suspect, a 45-year-old Tunisian man who had been living in Belgium illegally and whose name hasn’t been released, was found after a witness spotted him in a Schaerbeek cafe. Police arrived at the scene and the suspect was shot as they tried to arrest him. First responders attempted to save the man, but he later died in hospital.

The weapon used in the assault, an AR-15-type semiautomatic rifle, and a bag of clothes were recovered at the scene, federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said at a Tuesday evening news conference. Police launched four raids Tuesday morning and detained two people for questioning over their possible links to the suspect, he said, noting that authorities haven’t ruled out the possibility that he might have had help.

police check car

French police officers check a car near Neuville on Oct. 17, 2023, as France reinforced security at the France-Belgium border following a terrorist attack in Belgium. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

“It does not seem at the stage of the investigation that the terrorist attack was organized by a large terror network,” Van Leeuw said. “The hypothesis that he was acting as a lone wolf seems more likely.”

Police also found two handguns and a knife close to where the suspect had been living, he said.

At a pre-dawn news conference, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called the attack an act of “total cowardice” and said security had been beefed up in Brussels. It was noticeably boosted around places linked to the Swedish community and at Belgium’s southern border with France.

“Last night, three people left for what was supposed to be a wonderful soccer party. Two of them lost their lives in a brutal terrorist attack,” De Croo said. “Their lives were cut short in full flight, cut down by extreme brutality.”

The attack comes amid heightened global tensions over the war between Israel and Hamas. France’s anti-terror prosecutor said Tuesday that a suspected Islamic extremist declared allegiance to the Islamic State group before fatally stabbing a teacher at a French school attack last week. However, Belgian prosecutors said nothing suggests that Monday’s attack was linked to what’s happening in Israel and Gaza.

At a news conference in Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that “everything indicates this is a terrorist attack against Sweden and Swedish citizens, just because they are Swedish.” He said the suspect had occasionally stayed in Sweden but was not on police files there.

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“It’s not an unusual pattern to move around,” Kristersson added. “We have an openness in Europe, which is one of the important reasons why we need to keep an eye on the EU’s external border because otherwise people can easily move between European countries.”

Van Leeuw said the suspect posted a video online claiming to have killed three Swedish people and saying the Quran was “a red line for which he is ready to sacrifice himself.”

Sweden raised its terror alert to the second-highest level in August after a series of public Quran burnings by an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden resulted in threats from Islamic militant groups.

Asked if this might be a possible motive, federal prosecutor Eric Van Duyse told The Associated Press that it’s too early to tell. “The connection seems easy to make, but we must have evidence, we must have proof.”

Questions remain over how a man whose name was in police files, who was thought to have been radicalized and who was being sought for deportation was able to obtain such a weapon and launch such an attack.

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According to Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne, the suspect was denied asylum in 2019. He was known to police and had been suspected of involvement of human trafficking, living illegally in Belgium and of being a risk to state security.

Information provided to the Belgian authorities by an unidentified foreign government suggested that the man had been radicalized and intended to travel abroad to fight in a holy war. But the Belgian authorities were not able to establish this, so he was never listed as dangerous.

Belgian Asylum State Secretary Nicole de Moor said the man disappeared after his asylum application was refused, so authorities were unable to locate him to organize his deportation.

Jesper Tengroth, a spokesman for the Swedish Migration Agency, told Swedish public radio that the suspected gunman lived in Sweden from 2012-2014 and spent part of that time in prison before being sent to another EU country under the Dublin rules. Tengroth declined to say which crime the man was convicted of or which country he was sent to after completing his sentence.

After being raised to its highest level, 4, just after the attack, the terror alert for Brussels was lowered to a 3, in line with the rest of Belgium, indicating a moderate threat.

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