A knife-wielding prison inmate stabbed two female police officers in the Belgian city of Liege, before stealing their service weapons and shooting them and a bystander dead in an attack prosecutors fear could be terror-related.
Justice minister Koen Geens said the assailant, who was later killed by police, was on a two-day leave from prison. Mr Geens described him as a repeat offender who had been incarcerated since 2003 and was due for release in two years.
The attack happened outside a Liege cafe on Tuesday morning. Liege prosecutors’ spokesman Philippe Dulieu said the man crept up on the two officers from behind, before stabbing them several times.
The two police handguns had a total of 17 bullets.
Mr Dulieu said the attacker then shot and killed a 22-year-old man in a vehicle which was leaving a parking space outside a nearby high school. He then took two women hostage inside the school.
“Liege police intervened. He came out firing at police, wounding a number of them, notably in the legs. He was shot dead,” the spokesman said.
Police chief Christian Beaupere said the slain officers were 45 and 53 years old – the latter the mother of twins. Four other officers were wounded in the attack, one of them seriously with a severed femoral artery.
“The goal of the attacker was to target the police,” Mr Beaupere said.
Belgian media identified the suspect as Benjamin Herman. The Belgian national, born in 1982, had a criminal record that included theft, assault and drug offences, state broadcaster RTBF reported.
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel said Herman was indirectly mentioned in state security reports on radicalisation “in notes that did not primarily target him, but others or other situations”.
The prime minister said Herman did not have his name on a list maintained by an anti-terror assessment group.
Asked about reports that Herman had been radicalised in prison, Mr Geens said “at the moment there is very little consistent we can say about that.
However, a senior official at the federal prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press that “there are indications it could be a terror attack”.
Despite this, Belgium’s crisis centre said it saw no reason to raise the country’s terror threat alert for now.
Belgium’s King Philippe, Mr Michel and the country’s justice and interior ministers travelled to Liege to confer with local officials.
Mr Michel said: “I want to offer my government’s support for the victims, for the victims’ families.”
Belgian police and military have been on alert since suicide bombers killed 32 people at the Brussels airport and subway system in 2016.
It is not the first time Liege has been hit by a similarly violent attack. In December 2011, a man with a history of weapons and drug offences left home with hand grenades and guns before he lobbed the grenades into a square filled with Christmas shoppers and fired on those who escaped. Five were killed, including the assailant.