Belgian police hunted down a gunman Sunday who shot dead three people including two Israelis in an attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum reviving fears of a fresh wave of anti-Semitism in Europe.
The first attack against a Jewish target in Belgium for more than 30 years came as the country headed into a crucial general election and as a mammoth European ballot involving 400 million voters wound up.
“An election day is usually a celebration of democracy. Today it is clouded,” said Belgium’s premier Elio Di Rupo. “It is in everyone’s mind.”
“In Belgium we are not accustomed to such acts of barbarity.”
Welcoming Pope Francis in the Holy Land, Israel’s premier Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the pontiff for his “determined stance against anti-Semitism, especially in light of the growing hatred of Jews that we are witness to in these days.”
Deputy public prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch confirmed that two Israelis were among the fatalities as well as a French woman. A fourth critically injured person was Belgian, she told a news conference.
Police had not been able to identify the gunman, who “probably” acted alone, she said, and was “well prepared and well armed.” A picture of the suspect will be released to the public shortly.
Saying there was no claim so far, she also said “I cannot confirm that it is a terrorist or anti-Semitic act” and added that “all leads remain open.”
But French President Francois Hollande, during a visit to soutwhestern France to vote in European elections, said there was no doubt about the “anti-Semitic character” of the attack.
The attack has cast a pall across Europe as voters went to the polls.
It was the first fatal attack on a Jewish centre since the early 1980s in Belgium, home to some 40,000 Jews, roughly half of them living in Brussels, the remainder in Antwerp.
Netanyahu said the murders were “the result of constant incitement against Jews and their state”.
The head of the EU executive Jose Manuel Barroso condemned the “terrible act” in the heart of the European capital, saying: “This was an attack at European values which we cannot tolerate.”
– ‘Murder with premeditation’ –
The attack came on the eve of Sunday’s elections in Belgium for a new federal government as well as for its regional parliaments and the European Parliament.
Police late Saturday detained and interrogated a person who admitted having been at the scene at the time of the attack but denied involvement.
The person was initially interrogated as a suspect but later questioned as a witness, the public prosecutor’s office said.
Van Wymersch however said the person had been released but gave no further information.
An inquiry has been opened into “murder with premeditation”.
Van Wymersch said Saturday that police believed two men were involved — one who drove away from the scene in a car and was in police custody and one who escaped on foot and who had not yet been identified.
Detectives were examining video footage.
A Jewish community figure, Joel Rubinfeld, told AFP it clearly “is a terrorist act” after the two men were seen driving up and double-parking outside the museum.
One opened fire, allegedly shooting indiscriminately first in the entrance hall and then further inside before getting away.
The area around the museum was closed off and security strengthened to maximum level across the country in places associated with the Jewish community, said Interior Minister Joele Milquet.
There was no security at the museum and Jewish community leaders said there had been no threats.
The shooting lasted several minutes and took place at around 4 pm (1400 GMT), with the victims apparently shot in the face and throat.
The two Israelis were a couple from Tel Aviv in their 50s, while the Belgians shot were an employee at reception and a young volunteer.
– ‘Pools of blood’ –
A bystander, Alain Sobotik, told AFP he saw the corpses of a young woman and a man just inside the doors of the museum.
A picture shows them lying in pools of blood.
“The young woman had blood on her head. She was still holding a leaflet in her hand, she looked like a tourist,” he said.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders saw the two corpses at the entrance and said the two other victims had been shot further inside the museum.
He said he had been strolling nearby when he saw people fleeing and heard shots and rushed to help.
When he saw “bodies on the ground in pools of blood” he called the 112 emergency number and rounded up eyewitnesses.
While stopping short of calling it an anti-Semitic act, Reynders said “evidently one thinks of that.”
The Jewish Museum of Belgium is in the heart of the Sablon district which is home to top antique dealers. The area is a popular weekend haunt for shoppers and tourists.
“A deeply symbolic place was struck,” said Di Rupo. “The government expresses all its support to our country’s Jewish community.”
In 1982 a gunman opened fire at the entrance of the synagogue in Brussels, wounding four people, two seriously.
Saturday’s attack took place two years after the killing of four Jews, including thre children, in the French city of Toulouse.