Soldiers patrol streets of Antwerp and Brussels

Summary

For the first time since the 1980s, military personnel are patrolling specific locations in Brussels and Antwerp in response to a terrorism alert level of 3

What do you think of soldiers being deployed to the streets of Antwerp and Brussels amid fears of terrorist attacks?

Temporary measure

In a break with a long-standing tradition that Belgium’s military personnel should not be deployed on Belgian soil, soldiers began security duties at the weekend guarding government buildings and embassies in Brussels and Antwerp. Military personnel were also stationed in the Jewish quarter in Antwerp, the Jewish Museum in Brussels and in front of the American and Israeli embassies.

According to justice minister Koen Geens, the deployment of troops is a temporary measure – intended to last no longer than one month – in response to the increased terrorist threat to the country. The use of the military will be reviewed at the end of this week, he said.

So far, 150 troops have been deployed, with the number able to rise to 300 if required in other sites. “Our people are trained to protect sensitive locations,” said defence chief General Gerard Van Caelenberg, who pointed to experience in Afghanistan and Mali. The soldiers will be on static guard, authorised to use force only in self-defence or according to the rules of engagement established by the defence ministry.

Coalition party Open VLD intends to hold Geens strictly to such a schedule, party chair Gwendolyn Rutten told the Sunday political news programme De zevende dag. “Having soldiers patrolling our streets cannot be considered a solution,” she said. “Belgium is not Kabul. We cannot give way to fear.”

Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever defended the use of military patrols at terrorist targets, which he first suggested two years ago. “There have been attacks on the Jewish community in Antwerp,” he told VTM news. “When you realise that they’ve used kalashnikovs and such weapons and have targeted the police, then you see that more firepower on the ground is needed.”

In Brussels, the head of the federal police, Catherine De Bolle, praised the work carried out by her forces in last week’s anti-terror operations. “We have to keep cool,” she said. “The situation is under control, though we can’t guarantee nothing else will happen. A zero risk situation does not exist.”

For Ghent mayor Daniel Termont, on the other hand, the deployment of the military is not on the agenda. “In a modern democracy like ours, the military only appear in the streets in a war situation, and we’re a long way from that,” he said. Bart Somers, mayor of Mechelen, agreed. “The police take care of security here, and they’re doing a good job,” he said.

The military has been deployed on Belgian soil twice before: during the general strike in 1960-61, during which four demonstrators were killed during clashes; and in the early 1980s, following a series of terrorist attacks by the so-called Fighting Communist Cells.

In related news, the two men shot dead by police in Verviers last week were originally from the Brussels district of Molenbeek, where house searches were also carried out last week.

Photo by Yves Herman/BELGA