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Three days of metro lockdown and public forces operations in the capital of Europe. An assessment on the situation of a city invaded by soldiers and journalists (and social media users).
On Saturday morning the early birds woke up to a frozen Brussels, a first weekend of real winter, but also to a surprise: the metro was shut.
The few unfortunate enough to have to work either took the bus or walked to their workplaces while checking the news to find out what was going on. Yes, definitely, the Government had raised the alert level to 4 (the highest) and soldiers and policemen were invading the city centre.
The lockdown was prolonged to Sunday at 3 pm and then to Monday, where schools, universities, kinder-gartens and the underground public transport were kept closed with a huge deployment of public forces protecting key places such as train stations, public institutions, the airport and… supermarkets.
The reason? The police is looking for the suspected ringleader from the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, who is supposed to be hiding in Brussels.
The security threat will be reassessed regularly by Belgian authorities to decide if they maintatin the alert level for Tuesday.
MEDIA, TRANSMITTING A DISTORTED REALITY?
Abroad, the message felt almost apocalyptic as the media shared the selected images of an empty city with soldiers everywhere. The media have spent the last 48 hours updating without much to say, reposting what users were tweetting and invading the empty streets to try to follow up the police operations. Belgium has mobilized a thousand soldiers for support.
The measures, however, are not so strict in Brussels. Citizens are allowed to go out but the atmosphere is not really inviting, as the constant updates from the media worsen the feeling of insecurity. Users are tweetting pictures of completely deserted city centre streets.
The Belgian Home Secretary, Jan Jambon tried to let cooler heads prevail: “Apart from the metro and schools, life has to continue in Brussels.”
Nonetheless, the vast majority have decided to work from home. Who else is going to take care of the children? And with the Christmas season approaching, people talk of avoiding markets.
To all this, some questions are being raised up. Is it not an overreaction? Furthermore, do citizens need to know every single police movement? Le Soir, the French-speaking newspaper even posted the names and numbers of the battalions deployed. Does it help or does it make the operations more difficult? Should the media stay silent?
MORE THAN 20 RAIDS AND PSYCHOSIS
Nineteen raids in different communes (neighbourhoods) of Brussels have taken place, as well as three raids in the town of Charleroi, south of Brussels. Twenty one people have been arrested.
Mr. Jambon said it is not finished yet. Abdeslam has not been found.
In Antwerp, there were three bomb alerts in schools on Friday, the city centre was closed on Saturday and on Monday morning another anonymous call warned of a bomb hidden in a school building.
There is an average of 400 telephone calls per hour to the crisis centre. A special number was created.
TAKING IT WITH HUMOUR
On Sunday evening, the Belgian police asked the media and social media users to remain silent about the police operations. The net answered back with... pictures of cats. In a few minutes, the hashtag of #BrusselsLockdown was the second most used globally. Sniper-cats, Magritte-cats, reader-cats invaded the internet. Even conventional media posted pictures of cats to illustrate “police operations in progress”.
Cats are a symbol of humour in Belgium, as one of their famous daily comic strips is “Le Chat” by Philippe Geluck that used to be published in the newspaper Le Soir from 1983 until 2013.
Brussels police answered back with humour and thanked the twitter users by posting a picture of a bowl with biscuits to feed the cats.