A gunman has killed two police officers and a passer-by before being shot dead in the centre of the Belgian city of Liege, in what a public prosecutor called “a terrorist incident”.
The man was named by public broadcaster RTBF as a 36-year-old petty criminal and drug dealer who was let out of jail on day-release on Monday (local time).
A Belgian politician said the man had been on an anti-terrorist police watchlist after being radicalised in jail, apparently as a convert to Islam — raising questions about why he seems to have been freed unsupervised and expected to return.
Officials said the man attacked the policewomen, aged 45 and 53, from behind with a knife — described as a box-cutter by RTBF — about 10:30am on a boulevard in the centre of Belgium’s third biggest city, near the German border.
After slashing the officers, the man seized their handguns and shot both.
He shot dead a 22-year-old trainee teacher who was sitting in a car before entering a high school about 100 metres away and taking two female employees hostage.
That triggered a major intervention by armed police. Pupils were moved to safety as a gun battle broke out, sending people in the street racing for cover.
Several police officers were wounded before the attacker was finally killed.
“The goal of the assassin was to target the police,” Liege police chief Christian Beaupere told a news conference.
The case highlighted the risk of even petty criminals becoming radicalised while incarcerated.
Convicts have been behind several recent attacks in Europe, including some using little more weaponry than a knife or rental truck.
The national crisis centre, on high alert since attacks by Islamic State in Paris and Brussels in the past three years, said it had not raised its alert level — an indication the man was acting alone and follow-up attacks were not expected.
La Libre Belgique newspaper quoted a police source as saying the gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” — God is greatest in Arabic.
A Koran and prayer rug were found during a search of his cell, Paris-Match magazine said.
Belgian media said he had been put on the radical watchlist last year.
De Standaard newspaper said police also suspected him of the murder late on Monday of a criminal associate whose body was found south of Liege.
Confirming the attacker was on the police watchlist, politician George Dallemagne, who sits on several Belgian parliamentary security committees, tweeted: “The supervision of radicalised prisoners remains tragically flawed.”
Images on social media showed people scurrying for safety on Liege’s central boulevard d’Avroy, with shots and sirens being heard in the background.
Prime Minister Charles Michel and King Philippe visited Liege, the biggest city in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region.
Liege, an industrial city close to the German border in a French-speaking region, was the scene of a shooting in 2011, in which a gunman killed four people and wounded more than 100 others before turning the gun on himself.
Belgium has been on high alert since a Brussels-based Islamic State cell was involved in attacks in Paris in 2015 that killed 130 people and in Brussels in 2016, in which 32 died.
SOURCE: Reuters / AP