Belgian soldiers patrolled the Grand Place in Brussels on Sunday. The United States Embassy continued to advise citizens to â??remain at homeâ? and avoid public gatherings. Credit Yves Herman/Reuters
BRUSSELS â?? The Belgian authorities for a second day on Sunday maintained the highest possible alert level, virtually locking down the capital as they extended their hunt for a widening number of suspects linked to the Paris massacres and who were poised, they feared, to carry out an imminent new attack.
â??We fear an attack similar to the one in Paris,â? Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference on Sunday evening. â??A number of individuals could launch an attack on several locations in Brussels simultaneously.â?
â??We have indications that the targets of such an attack will be areas that attract large crowds like commercial centers,â? he added.
Belgiumâ??s interior minister, Jan Jambon, said that the threat was wider than that posed by Salah Abdeslam, a suspected Paris attacker who is still at large, suggesting that the Paris attacks may have involved a far broader network than originally thought.
â??There are a number of suspects,â? Mr. Jambon earlier told a Sunday program on the Belgian broadcaster VRT. â??Thatâ??s why weâ??ve put in place such a concentrationâ? of security measures, he added. â??We are following the situation minute by minute. Thereâ??s no point in hiding it, there is a real threat.â?
A former French intelligence official close to the investigations said that the Belgians were now looking for eight to 10 people who are heavily armed with weapons and explosives, in addition to Mr. Abdeslam, a resident of the heavily immigrant Molenbeek district of Brussels that was home to several of the Paris attackers.
Several Belgian media outlets reported that the police had arrested four people on Saturday evening, one wearing a suicide belt. Geert Schoorens, a magistrate at the federal prosecutorâ??s office, said on Sunday that he could â??neither deny nor confirmâ? those reports because investigations were ongoing.
For a second day, the government put the countryâ??s threat level at 4, the highest possible. The United States Embassy in Brussels continued to advise citizens to â??remain at homeâ? and avoid public gatherings. The authorities announced that schools and subways in Brussels would remain closed on Monday as well.
A railway station under the headquarters of the European Unionâ??s executive remained sealed off on Sunday and all traffic on the Brussels metro system was suspended. Soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled shopping malls. Several big stores stayed closed. A massive Sunday market near the Brussels-South railway station that usually draws as many as 50,000 shoppers was canceled.
Prime Minister Michel said on Saturday that the threat level had been raised because of â??information, relatively precise, of a risk of an attack similar to the one that unfolded in Paris.â?
Bernard Clerfayt, the mayor of Schaerbeek, a commune of Brussels, was more loose-tongued. On Sunday, he told the Belgian television network RTBF that â??there are two terrorists on the ground in the Brussels region.â?
Brussels was under such high alert that Mr. Jambon said he requested some football matches be canceled so that the reserve federal police, who usually enforce the security during matches, could be deployed in the capital.
At the same time, the French authorities on Sunday published a new call for witnesses related to the attacks in Paris and the raid in Saint-Denis last week, appealing for more information about the suicide bomber who was the second of three attackers to detonate explosive vests outside the Stade de France.
The call for witnesses, published by the French national police on Twitter, included a picture but not a name, and asked anybody who had information on the individual to contact the French authorities. The second suicide bomber detonated his vest near Gate H of the stadium, killing no one.
The first detonated his explosives near Gate D, killing one person. A Syrian passport for a 25-year-old individual named Ahmad al-Mohammad, from Idlib, Syria, was found near his body, but the French authorities believe that the passport may have been stolen.
On Friday, the Paris prosecutorâ??s office said that fingerprints for both the first and second bombers were taken at the same check for migrants in Greece on Oct. 3. The third bomber, identified as Bilal Hadfi, a 20-year-old French citizen living in Belgium, detonated his explosives on the nearby Rue de la Cokerie but did not kill anybody.
The appeal for help and the extraordinary security measures in Brussels came amid fresh revelations around another suspect, Abraimi Lazez, a 39-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, who was arrested on Thursday and charged with helping Mr. Abdeslam after his return to Belgium following the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
The authorities arrested Mr. Lazez after finding a handgun and an unspecified amount of blood in his car, his lawyer, Sokol Vljahen, said. Mr. Lazez, who grew up in the same Molenbeek neighborhood as some of the Paris attackers, denied any link to the attacks, his lawyer said.
Mr. Abdeslam was stopped by French police officers on Nov. 14 during a routine traffic check as he drove back to Brussels with two friends, both of whom have since been arrested, a few hours after the Paris attacks. He had a criminal record, but no warrant linked to his file, and he had not yet been linked to the attacks, so he was allowed to drive on.
One of the two men traveling with him and now under arrest has since told police that Mr. Abdeslam had been wearing a big jacket, â??with something underneath,â? according to the suspectâ??s lawyer, Carine Couquelet. While he did not know what it was, the lawyer said, the sight of it â??made him scared.â?
According to Mr. Lazezâ??s lawyer, his client never met Salah nor Ibrahim Abdeslam, his brother who died in Paris when he detonated a suicide vest. Mr. Lazez was not friends with Abdelhamid Abaaoud either, he said. Mr. Abaaoud, another Molenbeek resident, was the presumed ringleader of the Paris attacks and killed in a police raid just north of the French capital on Wednesday.
Mohamed, a third brother of the Abdeslams who was detained briefly after the attacks but released, appealed for Salah to turn himself in.
â??We wish for him to turn himself in,â? he told RTBF television in an interview on Sunday. â??To answer us. For our family, for the family of victims, for all the others. We prefer to see him in prison than in a cemetery.â?
He denied any knowledge of his brothersâ?? plans, even though he said that all three â??got along wellâ? and had the usual â??banal conversations you have with brothers.â?
He said he had not paid attention when the attitudes of his two brothers began to change six months ago. â??They started praying,â? Mohamed said. â??Or they stopped drinking alcohol, but itâ??s not a radical change. For me itâ??s the sign of people who wanted to chasten themselves, and to be more respectful of their religion.â?
When asked whether his brother, Salah, may have been reluctant to participate in the attacks, Mohamed said: â??It is my hope that he stepped back at the last minute.â?
â??Maybe he saw or heard something that made him turn back. After, did he kill victims? Was he at the exact location? Was he there until the end? We donâ??t know.â?