ANTWERP – A French Muslim man of North African origin known only as “Mohamed R” tried to drive over pedestrians on a crowded shopping street in the Belgian port city of Antwerp on Thursday, a rifle and several knives were found in his vehicle, Belgian Authorities said.
With tensions already high in Europe after a similar attack involving a vehicle on Wednesday near Parliament in London, Belgian prosecutors identified the suspect only as Mohamed R., in keeping with traditional practice — a 39-year-old French resident of North African ancestry.
No injuries were reported, but a bomb disposal unit was sweeping the car for explosives and inspecting an unidentified canister of liquid that was also found in the car.
“We remain vigilant,” said the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, on Twitter. “Our security services did an outstanding job in Antwerp.”
Bart De Wever, mayor of Antwerp, increased the state of alert and added police in busy neighborhoods, including shopping areas, transportation hubs, and museums.
It was one day after Belgium observed the anniversary of the deadliest attack on its soil, when suicide bombers in Brussels assaulted the main airport and a subway station, killing 32 people.
Antwerp is the second most important hub for radicalization in Belgium, and only Brussels has sent more people from the country to fight for Islamists in Syria.
The city is home to the now-banned and defunct terrorist group Sharia4Belgium, but Antwerp has so far averted a large-scale terrorist attack.
Around 10:45 a.m. Thursday, authorities said, a red car with French plates sped through a shopping area in central Antwerp, forcing pedestrians in the Meir, Belgium’s biggest shopping area, to dive out of the way.
Soldiers on a routine patrol noticed the vehicle and signaled to the driver to stop, but he ignored them and drove through a red light, again putting pedestrians in danger.
A rapid response team was called in and chased the car, stopping it less than a mile away and arresting the driver on the banks of the Scheldt River.
Once the car stopped, the suspect did not resist as he was taken into custody, bystanders told local news media.
The investigation was being handled by the federal prosecutor’s office, an indication that the attack would be treated as a terrorist case unless proved otherwise.
President François Hollande of France said the attack “seemed to involve a French national,” adding that the suspect “was looking to kill or at the very least create a dramatic incident.”
By Milan Schreuer – New York Times