Terror charges for suspect in murky Antwerp car incident

Lachlan CARMICHAEL
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Policemen patrol in the Belgian city of Antwerp on March 23, 2017

A Tunisian man has been charged with terror offences after being arrested for driving at high speed into a crowded shopping area in the Belgian port city of Antwerp, prosecutors said Friday as his motives remained unclear.

The 39-year-old suspect identified only as Mohamed R. was charged with "an attempt to murder in a terrorist manner, an attempt to hit and wound in a terrorist manner and arms infractions," the federal prosecutor's office said.

However, a source close to the investigation told AFP on condition of anonymity that investigators could not confirm if it was a terrorist attack and said the driver made little sense during interrogation.

Other sources said the charges could be interpreted as a "precautionary measure" in order to keep the suspect in detention.

Thursday's incident came a day after a similar attack in London that killed four people plus the attacker. Wednesday was also the first anniversary of the Brussels suicide bombings in which 32 people died.

Mohamed R. drove at high speed through the busy Meir shopping area in Antwerp, forcing people to jump out of the way, authorities said. No injuries were reported.

He also ignored an initial order to stop by soldiers.

The authorities said they found a rifle and bladed weapons in the car after they arrested the suspect in a parking lot on Thursday.

The Antwerp incident put Europe further on edge after the London attack and the incident at Paris's Orly airport last Saturday when a man was shot dead after grabbing a soldier's rifle.

Investigators said the man in Antwerp was clearly "under the influence of something" but it was not clear what substance.

He was not in a state to be questioned by police until Friday, a source close to the investigation said.

Even then, "his explanation made no sense" and "it is not confirmed that it amounts to a terrorist attack", the source added.

The source said the suspect had recently travelled between Belgium and the Netherlands, living in his car.

A French source close to the investigation said the man had "spent the night in a holding cell" in Antwerp on the eve of the incident before being released on Thursday morning.

- 'Petty crime' -

The suspect had a history of "petty crime," such as public drunkeness and drug use, but has apparently never been flagged as a radical, French police source told AFP.

Interrogated by French police, a friend of the suspect said the weapon in the boot of the car had been there for a long time and did not work.

The Belgian federal prosecutor's office said the suspect was driving at "very high speed" and that "at different times pedestrians were placed in danger".

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel praised security services in the Flemish-speaking city that "did an excellent job".

With soldiers deployed at key sites, Belgium has been on high alert since March 22 last year when suicide bombers attacked Zaventem airport and Maalbeek metro station, killing 32 people and leaving more than 320 wounded.

Belgium suffered a further shock in August when a machete-wielding man shouting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) attacked two policewomen in the industrial town of Charleroi, before being shot dead.