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Belgian counterterrorism police warn of possible ‘imminent’ attack, reports say

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 15/06/2016 Michael Birnbaum
French officers observe a minute of silence after an attacker claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed a French police couple outside Paris on Monday. © Romain Lafabregue/AFP/Getty Images French officers observe a minute of silence after an attacker claiming allegiance to the Islamic State killed a French police couple outside Paris on Monday.

Belgian and French police have been warned that a group of “combatants” left Syria intending to carry out attacks in France and Belgium, according to a Belgian counterterrorism alert, local media reported Wednesday.

The apparent warning comes two days after a deadly knife attack in France that was suspected to be inspired by the Islamic State, and three days after an attack in Orlando that killed 49 people, plus the gunman.

France has been on highest alert as it hosts the European soccer championship, which started last week. The country has been in a so-called "state of emergency" since Nov. 14, the day after Islamic State militants killed 130 in a series of attacks across Paris.

It was not immediately clear how seriously French and Belgian authorities were treating the threat. French authorities told local newspapers that such warnings are relatively common.

“According to the information received, these people could already in be in possession of the necessary weapons and their action could be imminent,” the alert said, according to the Belgian Dernière Heure newspaper.

The attackers were expected to split into two groups, one heading toward France and the other toward Belgium, and to conduct attacks in pairs, the alert said. It offered no details on the basis of the information.

Pascal Boniface, director of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), described the threats as "nothing new," arguing that there was little either government could do to prevent what he called "a new form of attack," where individuals or small groups of terrorists pursue small-scale targets.

"To be sure that you are preventing any kind of this attack, it’s just impossible," he said. "You could take some precautions to limit the risk, but that's not really different from former times."

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Belgian counterterrorism police declined to comment. Belgium’s security threat coordination center has not raised its threat level, which is currently set at three out of four levels, with the fourth being the expectation of an imminent attack.

The group was planning to travel from Syria into Europe via boat from Turkey to Greece, without passports, according to the alert.

Possible Belgian targets include a Brussels shopping center, an American fast-food chain and a police station, the newspaper reported.

On Monday, an attacker claiming loyalty to the Islamic State killed a police captain and his partner, who worked at a police department outside Paris. The assailant was killed in a police raid.

"It will be impossible to put a policeman behind every policeman," Boniface said. "And tomorrow it will be someone else."

Amid numerous public memorials for the slain pair, President François Hollande called for international unity to face a “long war” against terrorism.

This battle, he said in an address at the Elysee Palace, is “not just in a few countries but in the world. Everyone can be concerned.”

In an interview on France Inter radio, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls predicted that the fight could take decades.

“Other innocent people will die,” Valls said. “It is very hard to say. People can accuse me — and I completely understand — of making the society even more fearful than it already is today with these events. But unfortunately, this is the reality. It will take a generation.”

James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.

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