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Belgian soldiers shoot suspect after explosion at Brussels train station

By Michael Birnbaum, Annabell Van den Berghe

June 20, 2017 at 7:36 PM

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Belgian authorities say a Brussels train station was evacuated after an explosion-like sound was heard. (vegardeinan/Twitter)

by Michael Birnbaum and Annabell Van den Berghe

BRUSSELS — Belgian soldiers shot a man at a central Brussels train station who they think set off a small explosion Tuesday, Belgian authorities said, in an incident that they described as a terrorist attack.

The apparent attack — which did not injure anyone other than the suspect — came after a series of terrorism-linked incidents in Paris and Britain in recent weeks, setting off fears of further violence across the continent as tourism high season begins. 

But Belgian authorities did not raise the nation's terrorism threat level, a sign that they do not think another attack is imminent.

The soldiers shot and "neutralized" the man Tuesday night after the explosion at Brussels Central Station, according to Eric van der Sypt, a spokesman for Belgian federal prosecutors. Authorities later said the suspect died.

A Belgian Army soldier stands outside Central Station after a reported explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Police officials and soldiers stand alert in a cordoned off area outside Gare Centrale in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. / AFP PHOTO / THIERRY ROGE / Belgium OUTTHIERRY ROGE/AFP/Getty Images
epa06039870 Military personel outside of the Brussels Central Station after a neutralized terrorist attack attempt, in Brussels, Belgium, 20 June 2017. According to Belgian media, police shot a suspect wearing an explosive belt at the Brussels Central Station. Belgian police also confirmed there was a small explosion in the Brussels Central Station, but said there are not much damage done and situation is under control. The cause of the explosion is unknown. EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
Belgian Army soldiers approach a man outside Central Station after a reported explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
A picture taken by Gege Efendia and published on his Twitter account on June 20, 2017, shows police officers and a soldier standing outside Gare Central (train station) in Brussels, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. / AFP PHOTO / TWITTER / Gege Efendia / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / TWITTER / GEGE EFENDIA- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS GEGE EFENDIA/AFP/Getty Images
Soldiers and police officials guide members of the public on a street outside Gare Centrale in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Belgian Army soldiers and police patrol outside Central Station after a reported explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Belgian Army soldiers patrol outside Central Station after a reported explosion in Brussels on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Police vehicles cordon off an area outside Gare Central in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
epa06039904 People walk past an armed soldier outside of the Brussels Central Station after a neutralized terrorist attack attempt, in Brussels, Belgium, 20 June 2017. According to Belgian media, police shot a suspect wearing an explosive belt at the Brussels Central Station. Belgian police also confirmed there was a small explosion in the Brussels Central Station, but said there are not much damage done and situation is under control. The cause of the explosion is unknown. EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
A soldier (L) guides a member of the public on a street outside Gare Centrale in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. A suspect shouted out "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) before causing an explosion at a Brussels railway station, a witness said. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Belgian police evacuate people near the Grand Place near Central Station in Brussels after a reported explosion on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
A police official uses tape as he cordons off an area on a street outside Gare Centrale in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. A suspect shouted out "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) before causing an explosion at a Brussels railway station, a witness said. / AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Police patrol the street near Central Station in Brussels after a reported explosion on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
People speak with a police officer near Central Station in Brussels after a reported explosion on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Belgian media are reporting that explosion-like noises have been heard at a Brussels train station, prompting the evacuation of a main square. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Soldiers and police officials guide members of the public from inside a cordoned off area on a street outside Gare Centrale in Brussels on June 20, 2017, after an explosion in the Belgian capital. / AFP PHOTO / BELGA / THIERRY ROGE / Belgium OUTTHIERRY ROGE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Gallery: The Brussels prosecutor?s office says there appears to be no civilian injuries or deaths from a central train station explosion. Belgian soldiers shot a person who they believe set off the small explosion.

Security forces think they may have foiled a larger attack, officials said, and soldiers and counterterrorism investigators were searching the train and metro station for more explosives.

Van der Sypt told reporters that "a small explosion" occurred about 8:30 p.m. in Brussels Central Station. "The suspect has been neutralized by the military present at the scene immediately after the explosion," he said.

Related: [Attacks show how Belgium became incubator of terror]

"The incident is considered as a terrorist attack," he added.

Nicolas Van Herreweghen, a station agent, said he saw a man shouting on a mezzanine level of the station, which serves as both a national commuter train hub and a local subway stop.

"He cried 'Allahu akbar' and he exploded the small suitcase he had with him," Van Herreweghen told Belgium's Le Soir newspaper, using the Arabic term for "God is great." Van Herreweghen said he sounded an alert to start evacuating the station over the station workers' radio communication system. Then he ran down to speak to colleagues in a small control office inside the station. The attacker also ran into the office, then ran back out, Van Herreweghen said.

He said the short-haired attacker, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, was wearing what appeared to be an explosive vest and seemed to be between 30 and 35 years old. 

Witnesses inside the station said it was crowded when the explosion occurred. Images posted on social media showed a small fire on the floor of a wide passageway that leads down to trains.

Some witnesses said they heard a second explosion followed by gunfire, which may have been a flash grenade thrown by soldiers as they attacked the suspect.

Fearful people ran from the station as security personnel evacuated it, witnesses said.

Belgium has been under high alert for terrorism, and armed soldiers routinely patrol train stations, public plazas and other high-profile targets.

Brussels Central Station, one of the nation's busiest, was evacuated and sealed following the incident as police and soldiers swarmed the area and other parts of central Brussels. 

The Belgian capital's medieval Grand Place, which is about 700 feet from the station, was also briefly evacuated, but it was quickly reopened on an evening that was unusually warm and steamy for the drizzly city. Many people were out enjoying the weather before the incident. 

Sirens could be heard wailing across Brussels after the incident, and two subway lines were also temporarily closed.

Related: [Terror in London seems to confirm Muslims’ growing dread]

"Thank you to our soldiers, to the security services and to the SNCB personnel for their professionalism and their courage," Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel wrote on Twitter, referring to the SNCB national rail service. He said he would convene a meeting of his security advisers Wednesday morning.

Authorities were not sure whether the man was wearing an explosive belt, was carrying a bag filled with explosives or was transporting the material in some other way, said a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors. 

The incident comes as Europe is on high alert following a foiled attack on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Monday and several attacks in recent weeks in Britain.

Brussels was most recently hit by coordinated suicide bombings in March 2016 of its airport and a subway station that killed 32 and injured more than 300. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the assault, which was linked to terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015.

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Michael Birnbaum is The Washington Post’s Brussels bureau chief. He previously served as the bureau chief in Moscow and in Berlin, and joined The Post in 2008 as an education reporter.

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