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Amid Fears Of An Attack, Belgium Re-Ups Its State Of Emergency


We start the program today in Brussels, where there has been a massive police action against terrorist suspects. This comes as the state of emergency has been extended there into the work week. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in Brussels and has the latest. And Dina, I'd like to start with this unusual midnight press conference with the prosecutor in Brussels. He provided just a bit of information about a number of police operations. What did he say?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, he provided very little detail, aside from saying that there were a number of police raids. The big headline is that police appeared to have been closing in on that man they've been hunting for over a week now, a Belgian-born Frenchman named Salah Abdeslam. And they didn't get him. They searched 19 houses. Several shots were fired on a vehicle. Fifteen people were taken into custody. But officials told reporters that that was all they were going to tell them. They wouldn't answer questions and wouldn't reveal any other details because the investigation is ongoing.

MARTIN: Could you please remind us of who this man - Salah Abdeslam - that they've been searching for and why they're searching for him, what he's suspected of doing.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he's 26 years old, and there's been a manhunt for him since last Friday night. Hours after the Paris attacks, he was stopped in a routine traffic stop after crossing the border between France and Belgium. At the time, police didn't know he had any connection to the attacks, so they let him go. French and Belgian authorities now believe he helped coordinate the cell that launched the attacks.

MARTIN: What does that mean exactly, coordinate the cell that launched the attacks?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, among other things, authorities say he rented the cars and the rooms where the men stayed. They were in his name. They've been looking for him ever since. They were concentrating on the neighborhood that he knew really well, a neighborhood called Molenbeek. It's a gritty place, about 10 minutes by taxi from the center of Brussels. Police have thought for some time that he might have been hiding out there. They had started searching house to house for him about a day or so ago. But according to the local prosecutor, it appears they've lost him.

MARTIN: Tell us a little, if you would, about the other story coming out of Brussels, which is that the officials there have decided that they are going to extend this high level of terrorist alert into the work week tomorrow. Tell us a little bit about that, if you would.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's known as a Level 4 alert, and it's never been invoked before this past Friday. Officials say they have intelligence that suggests that multiple imminent Paris-style attacks on locations throughout the capital are being planned, which is part of the reason why they launched these police raids across the city tonight. And the government announced that the metro would remain closed, it cancelled school and more broadly told Belgians to do what they could to avoid crowds. This is the first time the government has decided to extend this kind of state of emergency into the regular work week. So this has been a really dramatic announcement.

MARTIN: And I understand that you had a chance to get out and about a little bit earlier today. So just briefly, if you would, could you just tell us what the atmosphere was like earlier today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, when we came in this morning, it was literally a ghost town. There's usually a big open-air market at Gare Midi, the main international train station here. This morning, there wasn't a soul. There were no booths, no tables, no people, no fruit, no vegetables. You know, in the city, by late afternoon, some restaurants were open. And of course, chocolate shops and waffle places were open. But there's still a little bit of a pall over the place. And particularly now that it appears the man that police have been searching for so long, may be somewhere close by.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, joining us from Brussels, Belgium, where a series of police raids relating to the Paris attacks and a high state of alert has been extended for a fourth day. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.