Street life in central Brussels came to a halt over the weekend as fears of a Paris-style terrorist attack closed the city. Separately, Islamist gunmen seized a Radisson hotel in Africa and killed at least 27 people, and Lebanon issued an alert to airlines over planned Russian naval military exercises in its airspace.
The three developments have the potential to disrupt tourism and aviation, among other activities.
On the Brussels front:
Brussels remains in lockdown mode this morning (Monday 23 November 2015), with transport severely disrupted and all schools across the city closed.
On Saturday, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) issued the following advisory:
“On 20 November 2015, Belgian authorities raised the domestic terrorism threat level to the highest level (Serious and imminent) for Brussels. Belgian authorities recommend that the public avoid places with high concentrations of people in the Brussels region including concerts, major events, train stations and airports, public transport, and shopping districts. The domestic threat level for the rest of Belgium remains at Serious (level 3 of 4), noting particular concerns about places and events attracting crowds. The level of this advice has not changed. We continue to advise Australians to exercise a high degree of caution in Belgium.
The streets of Brussels were reported almost deserted at the weekend as soldiers hunted for the fugitive Salah Abdeslam, an Islamist gunman who participated in the Paris atrocity and is thought to have fled to Belgium armed with a suicide belt.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said there was “quite precise information” that “several individuals with arms and explosives could launch an attack… perhaps even in several places”.
An emergency meeting in Europe is reported to have agreed that every traveller coming into Europe will have their name checked against anti-terror watch lists. That may cause delays. Border guards will scan passports using computers to compare details with lists of wanted persons and terror suspects.
Europe has been rattled by news that the organiser of the Paris terrorist attacks entered Europe posing as a Syrian refugee. At least two of the terrorists who carried out the attack are thought to have slipped in among the hordes of Middle Eastern and African migrants still making their way across the continent.
Europe’s passport-free “Schengen zone” is under heavy pressure as European governments demand the right to check passports and identities at their borders, a common-sense security measure currently forbidden by the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
On the Mediterranean front:
Russia’s military asked Lebanon on Friday to partially shut down its airspace for three days starting at midnight Saturday, as it continues to attack terrorists in Syria with bomber flights and salvoes of cruise missiles.
On Saturday, flights in and out of Lebanon took longer routes, with some airlines cancelling services, to avoid Russian naval exercises in the Mediterranean Sea.
Middle East Airlines told the Wall Street Journal flights heading to Gulf countries would have longer flight times because of the new routes agreed between Lebanon and Cyprus.
Russia is bombing Islamic State bases in Syria after discovering that the deadly crash earlier this month of the Airbus A321-200 operated by the Russian tourist airline Metrojet, was caused by a bomb placed on the plane. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for planting the bomb. The crash killed all 224 people aboard, almost all of them tourists.
In response, the Russian naval fleet in the Caspian Sea is firing salvoes of cruise missiles at terrorist targets in Syria. Over the past four days, Russia is reported to have conducted 522 bombing sorties, fired more than 100 cruise missiles and dropped 1400 tons of bombs of various types. Bombers and fighter planes being deployed include Russia’s formidable supersonic Tu 160 “Blackjack” heavy bomber, which can carry 40 tonnes of bombs and missiles and fly at up to 2220 km/h.
This is not a good environment for civilian aircraft to fly in.
Dramatic videos of the Caspian Sea missile launch and Russian bombers in action over Syria were released at the weekend by Russian defence and news sources, as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned: “Our air force’s military work in Syria must not simply be continued. It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”
In Mali, meanwhile:
An attack by Islamist fanatics on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, capital of that west African country, left at least 27 people dead.
The gunmen took 170 people hostage for about nine hours on Friday. Malian special forces, backed by US and French military support, staged a floor-by-floor assault to end the siege.
Guests at the hotel included airline staff from Turkish Airlines and Air France.
The dead include six Russians, three Chinese, an American, a Belgian, an Israeli and many Africans.
“I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to those affected by this terrible tragedy and express gratitude to law enforcement and first responders on the scene,” a statement from Carlson Hospitality Group chief executive David P. Berg said.
“As the investigation unfolds, our priority is to take care of our guests, employees and their families involved.”
Radisson Blu is part of the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group.
Written by Peter Needham