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Brussels metro shut as Belgian capital put on maximum alert

Belgian authorities closed down Brussels' subway system and flooded the streets with armed police and soldiers Saturday in response to what they said was a threat of Paris-style attacks.

The decision to raise the threat alert to the highest level in the Belgian capital came as the manhunt continued for a suspect missing since the carnage in neighboring France. It was taken "based on quite precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris," said Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel.

The tip authorities received suggested that an attack would involve "several individuals with arms and explosives launch actions, perhaps even in several places at the same time," he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Belgium urged Americans in the country "to shelter in place and remain at home" while the U.S. European Command issued a 72-hour travel restriction for U.S. military personnel on travel to Brussels —a city of more than 1 million that is home to the headquarters of the European Union, the NATO alliance and offices of many multinational corporations.

On Saturday night, a relative calm descended on the city center, where restaurants and beer bars would usually be teeming with business. On Brussels' central square, the Grand Place, tourists snapped selfies as a green army truck full of soldiers pulled up next to a lit Christmas tree. Some restaurants and bars shuttered their doors, while others remained open, defying advice from the mayor to close for the night.

Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015.
Yves Herman | Reuters
Belgian police stage a raid, in search of suspected muslim fundamentalists linked to the deadly attacks in Paris, in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, November 16. 2015.

Belgium, and its capital in particular, have been at the centre of investigations into the Paris attacks - which included suicide bombers targeting a France-Germany soccer match - after the links to Brussels emerged. Three people detained in Brussels are facing terrorism charges.

French authorities have said the attacks were planned in Brussels by a local man, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 28, who fought for Islamic State in Syria and was killed in the siege of an apartment in the Paris suburb of St. Denis on Wednesday.

Salah Abdeslam, who was from the same neighbourhood and is said by officials to have known Abaaoud in prison, was pulled over three times by French police but not arrested as he was driven back to Brussels early last Saturday by two of the men now in custody. As well as Abdeslam's brother, a second man from Brussels, Bilal Hadfi, was also among the Paris suicide bombers.

The crisis centre spokesman declined to say what had led to the status change because investigations were proceeding.

"We cannot give more information... The work of federal prosecutors is still going on," he said, adding the government was assessing what extra security measures to take. Soldiers are already on guard in certain parts of Brussels, including at the institutions of the European Union headquartered in the city.

The last time any part of the country was put on maximum alert was in May 2014 when a gunman shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. At that time, Jewish schools, synagogues and other institutions were put on level four.

The capital as a whole was last at the level four for about a month at the end of 2007 and the start of 2008, when authorities intercepted a plot to free convicted Tunisian Nizar Trabelsi. Brussels' traditional New Year fireworks display was cancelled.

Trabelsi was sentenced in Belgium in 2003 to 10 years for attempting to blow up a Belgian military base that houses U.S. soldiers. He was extradited to the United States in 2013.

The government's four-level alert system has been in place since 2006.

--The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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