Belgian police have arrested two people in different parts of the country who were suspected of plotting attacks during New Year’s Eve celebrations in Brussels, prosecutors have said.
Less than two months after the jihadi attacks in Paris, which France said were planned in Belgium, the federal prosecutor’s office said police seized military-style uniforms, computers and Islamic State propaganda during raids in Brussels, Brabant to the north, and near Liège in the east.
Six people were detained for questioning in the raids on Sunday but four had since been released, the prosecutors said on Tuesday. No weapons or explosives were recovered, and the operation was not linked to the Isis suicide bombings and shootings in Paris in November that killed 130 people, they added.
One of the two men arrested was being held on suspicion of planning attacks as well as “playing a lead role in the activities of a terrorist group and recruiting for terrorist acts,” the prosecutor’s office said.
The second faced charges of planning and “participating in the activities of a terrorist group,” it said, adding that the investigation had revealed “the threat of serious attacks that would target several emblematic places in Brussels and be committed during the end-of-year holidays”. Neither of the suspects has been identified.
Benoît Ramacker, a spokesman for the Belgian government’s Ocam national crisis centre, said the organisation had raised its alert level for police and soldiers on duty in Brussels, which houses the EU and Nato headquarters.
Ramacker said a new official threat assessment conducted after the latest searches and arrests concluded the officers and soldiers deployed to protect others from extremist attacks “might become targets themselves”.
Another source close to the investigation said Brussels’ main square, packed at this time of year with shoppers, was a suspected target. “There are a lot of people on the Grand Place as well as soldiers and police patrolling, as well as a police station nearby,” the source said.
Amid mounting fears of jihadi attacks, Belgian authorities have stationed troops and extra police officers outside many sites in the capital, including the main EU buildings and foreign embassies and missions.
Belgian authorities are hunting for suspects thought to have been involved in the 13 November attacks on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, the Stade de France and a string of bars and cafes in the French capital.
An international arrest warrant has been issued for Brussels-born Salah Abdeslam, 26, who French authorities say played a critical role in the attacks and is thought to have returned to the Belgian capital the following day after slipping through police hands during a routine early-morning border traffic control.
Nine men have been detained in Belgium since the Paris carnage, including four who are accused of helping Abdeslam get away in the hours after the attacks. Per head, Belgium has provided the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, with an estimated 500 of its citizens having left to wage jihad.
Like several of the Paris gunmen and suicide bombers – including the alleged ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who died when French police stormed the apartment north of Paris where he was hiding – Abeslam lived or had family connections to the Brussels district of Molenbeek, a longstanding haven for jihadis.
The Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, told Le Soir newspaper on Tuesday that the suspected terrorist had been able to evade capture for so long because he had a surprising level of support in the communities.
The Belgian capital has been on security alert level three – one notch below the maximum – since mid-November. For four days after the Paris attacks, schools and the metro were shut as the city was placed on maximum alert, indicating a “serious and imminent” terrorist threat.