BRUSSELS (AFP) – Police arrested several extremist suspects in anti-terror raids across Europe on Friday as a deadly shootout with militants in Belgium and the aftermath of the Paris attacks kept the continent on alert.
Belgium beefed up security a day after police killed two suspected extremists in the eastern town of Verviers near the German border, foiling what police called “imminent” attacks by a cell that had recently returned from Syria.
French police detained 12 people overnight in the suburbs of Paris in connection with last week’s attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, a Jewish supermarket and a policewoman, in which 17 people were killed.
Hundreds of German police meanwhile raided alleged extremist sites in Berlin early on Friday, arresting two men suspected of being part of a group planning to carry out an attack in Syria, police said.
There was no immediate link between the raids but they highlighted fears about young Europeans travelling to fight holy war with the Islamic State and other extremist groups in the Middle East, and then returning to launch attacks on Western targets.
Prime Minister Charles Michel raised Belgium’s terror alert to its second highest level following the militant gunbattle, which was followed by around a dozen raids in Brussels and its suburbs.
Jewish schools in Brussels and the port city of Antwerp closed Friday due to fears of further trouble.
The raid and a series of related search operations across Belgium were now “over” but authorities were now seeking to “exploit the information” they had obtained, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said.
“The threat was to the police forces,” he said of the planned attacks.
Belgian police found Kalashnikov assault rifles, explosive material and police uniforms in the property, media reports said.
The suspects were planning to kidnap a top police or justice official then behead him and post a video of the killing on the Internet, the Flemish daily Het Laatste Nieuws said.
With France still reeling from the attacks which targeted its cherished traditions of free speech, US Secretary of State John Kerry laid wreaths on Friday at both Charlie Hebdo offices and the Jewish supermarket during a visit to Paris.
It follows criticism of the US for not sending a top representative to a march in Paris on Sunday, which drew 1.5 million people and dozens of world leaders in the wake of the attacks.
The funeral of Stephane Charbonnier, alias Charb, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, was also due to take place on Friday.
The nine men and three women arrested in France overnight were to be questioned about “possible logistic support” they may have given to the gunmen – extremist brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly – in particular weapons and vehicles, the source said.
In Germany an alleged leader of a group planning to carry out an attack in Syria and the man in charge of financing were arrested in raids on suspected extremist sites in and around Berlin by more than 200 police officers, officials said.
They were suspected of leading an extremist group of “Turkish and Russian nationals from (the Caucasus regions’ of) Chechnya and Dagestan,” the police said in a statement, adding that “there is no indication that the group was preparing attacks inside Germany”.
While there were no direct links between the arrests across the three neighbouring countries, it came on the heels of calls for greater anti-terror cooperation across the EU.
Belgian prosecutors said they had found “no link at this stage” to the Paris attacks but earlier said they suspected a Belgian man could have supplied Jewish supermarket gunman Coulibaly