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Brussels under lockdown as Paris terror suspect eludes police

23111536771868 - 23_11_2015 - BELGIUM BRUSSELS POLICE OPERATION.jpg
The search for a key suspect in the Paris terror attacks kept the Belgian capital in an unprecedented lockdown that brought normal business to a standstill.

[BRUSSELS] The search for a key suspect in the Paris terror attacks kept the Belgian capital in an unprecedented lockdown that brought normal business to a standstill.

The clampdown in Brussels continued for a third day on Monday - with schools, shops and the entire metro system shut - - after a series of raids overnight by counter-terrorism special forces failed to find Belgium-born Salah Abdeslam, one of two brothers believed to have been involved in attacks that killed 130 in Paris on Nov 13. Belgium's government warned of a continuing, serious threat to the public.

"What we expect is an attack similar to the one that unfolded in Paris with multiple people who launch offensives in many places at the same time," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said late Sunday. The threat is "very serious and imminent."

Attention shifted from Paris to the Belgian capital of around 1.2 million people as European governments prepare to carry out airstrikes against Islamic State at its base in Syria. France, where the government extended a state of emergency for three months, put naval forces in position to bomb Syria, while the UK said it would seek to firm up political support for its own military efforts. French President Francois Hollande plans to huddle with UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday to discuss the unfolding crisis.

The decision to keep Brussels on a heightened state of alert extended the disruption to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, both of which have their headquarters in the city. NATO told non-essential staff to stay at home, while the EU opened with reinforced security. Finance ministers of the euro area's 19 nations are scheduled to meet in Brussels in the afternoon as planned. KBC Groep NV, Belgium's biggest bank, closed its headquarters in the capital on Monday.

"We are working from home and from our disaster recovery dealing room to avoid public places in Brussels," said Piet Lammens, global head of market research at KBC. "I hope we'll be back in the office tomorrow. We'll evaluate the situation later today. I'm not afraid."

Brussels has been on its guard since it emerged that at least three jihadists behind the Paris assaults lived in the city. Abdeslam, who's now the focus of an international manhunt, comes from the Molenbeek district of the capital.

"We are following the situation hour-by-hour," Mr Michel said. "Everything is put in place to find a way back to normal life as soon as possible."

Counter-terrorism officers carried out 22 simultaneous raids in Brussels and the Belgian city of Charleroi, federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told reporters early Monday. They detained 16 people, none of whom was Abdeslam.

"We didn't find arms or explosives," said Mr Van der Sypt. "A certain number of elements of the investigation required intervention tonight."

The Brussels metro remained closed all weekend after authorities late Friday raised the terror alert for the Brussels region to 4, or "very serious," and canceled sporting events and cultural activities around the city. 

On Saturday night, the city was virtually empty as authorities advised bars and cafes to close after 6 pm. Armed police and soldiers in armored vehicles patrolled the streets as movie theaters, libraries and galleries closed. Delhaize will reopen most of its supermarkets in Brussels on Monday, a spokesman said.

"Closing the metro isn't so much about a threat but with the difficulty of ensuring security," Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told Een television. "Each metro station has about eight exits. That is much more difficult than a train that passes through several stations."

The terror warning came hours after the United Nations on Friday unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for countries to take "all necessary measures" to combat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, warning that the group intends further attacks like those in the French capital.

After seeing Cameron on Monday, Hollande will meet US President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Wednesday. He'll travel to see Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told BBC Television Sunday that "this week we're going to step up our diplomatic efforts, our humanitarian efforts, and seek to step up our military efforts" to defeat IS in Syria. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio that planes from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle would be ready to start carrying out strikes in Syria starting Monday.