Two suspects were killed and a third badly injured Thursday in a counter-terrorism operation in the Belgian town of Verviers, about 75 miles east of Brussels, foiling an “imminent attack” by Islamic extremists, officials said. The raid was just one in a series of operations across the country Thursday, according to Belgian media reports, with additional police actions taking place in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Anderlecht and Brussels. Ten counter-terrorism searches were conducted overall.
According to separate U.S. sources, the extremists intended retaliatory attacks in Belgium because of the U.S. led bombings of ISIS.
“We found that this group was about to commit terrorist attacks in Belgium,” Magistrate Eric Van der Sypt, a Belgian prosecutor, told reporters Thursday in a press conference covering the Vervier raid, adding that officials believed the suspects were part of a terror cell and had recently returned from fighting in Syria. He said the suspects used heavy weapons to open fire on police when they attempted to execute their search warrant.
No police or witnesses were hurt, Van der Sypt said. He thanked the police and special forces for their “impeccable work.”
Officials declined to give more information, noting that the operation was still underway, but that there would be a second press conference tomorrow at 11 a.m. local time. The threat level in Belgium has been elevated from level 3 to 4 in some parts of the country, officials said, amid continued police actions in Brussels.
The deadly raid is the latest in a series of police actions in response to a string of recent terror attacks in France, which left 17 dead. Last week, two al Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, killing eight journalists, a maintenance worker and two police officers. Another gunman linked to the Charlie Hebdo attackers killed four hostages in a kosher market before authorities stormed the Paris store.
In Spain, officials are reportedly seeking out leads that the presumed shooter at the kosher supermarket, Amedy Coulibaly, was in Spain around the New Year, just days before the attack. His common-law wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, who is a fourth suspect in the case, was previously known to be in Spain before last week’s attacks.
Authorities are also seeking out potential accomplices in Paris. Officials in Turkey arrested a man as he attempted to enter Syria on allegations of terrorism in connection to the attacks.
According to intelligence analysts spoken to by NBC, in August, Belgium had about 400 foreign fighters in Syria, the majority of them fighting alongside ISIS.
Richard Esposito and Jane Timm contributed to this report.