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Belgium Remains At Heightened Terror Alert

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What Belgian police say they are facing is a serious and imminent terrorist threat. That's the reason they have conducted a series of sweeps in Brussels. The sweeps have resulted in the detention of at least 21 people in the last day or so. This is all linked to the investigation of the attacks in Paris earlier this month, of course. NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is in Brussels in Grand Place, the central square. Dina, what's been happening in Brussels?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the dramatic events really took place last night around 9 o'clock. Police and military have been guarding the square where I'm standing now all day. But then, suddenly, there were these reinforcements. They began blocking off the streets. They even moved buses into intersections to make sure no one got out. People who were near the square were told to draw their curtains and stay away from the windows. So it was clear they were looking for someone, that it wasn't just some sort of bomb threat or suspicious package. And as it turns out, there were a number of raids that were going on across the city, not just in Grand Place. When it was all over, which was about midnight our time, prosecutors told reporters that they'd searched 19 houses. Several shots had been fired at a vehicle that tried to run down officers in a neighborhood just outside of the city's center. And as you said, people have been taken into custody. You know, unfortunately, the person that they'd been looking for, Saleh Abdelsalam, wasn't among the people that they found.

INSKEEP: Would you remind us what it is that his role was in the Paris bombing?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Saleh Abdelsalam is 26 years old. He was born in Belgium but is a French national. And he's suspected of having been one of the coordinators of the attack. He grew up in a neighborhood of Brussels not far from here called Molenbeek. And that's where those house-to-house searches had been. And they've been doing that for the past couple of days. Officials seem to think he's in Belgium. The last time they saw him was on the border between France and Belgium, just hours after the Paris attacks. His car had been stopped. He was with two other men. But at the time, police didn't suspect he had any connection to the attacks, so they let him go. Now they have those two other men he was with in custody. French and Belgian authorities believe that he is in Belgium. They just aren't sure where. You know, one of his brothers actually had been on Belgian television begging him to turn himself in.

INSKEEP: What exactly did he do to coordinate the attacks, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, among other things, authorities say he rented the cars the attackers drove and the Paris hotel rooms where the men stayed. I mean, there is also some question as to whether or not he was caught on closed-circuit video shooting at patrons in one of the Paris cafes targeted the night of the attacks. You know, one of his other brothers was identified as a suicide bomber in one of the cafes.

INSKEEP: So this is one of the men they've been looking for in Brussels. What is it like, then, on the streets right now, Dina?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's something called a level four alert. It's never been invoked before this past Friday. And it means that authorities think there's an imminent danger of terrorist attack on Brussels. Ministers here announced the extension of the level four yesterday, even before the raids started. So what that means is that the schools are closed. The subway or Metro is closed. People are supposed to avoid crowded places. They've told Belgians to stay away from train stations. And everywhere you look, there's soldiers and police carrying assault rifles. This is the first time the government has decided to extend the state of emergency into the regular workweek. So it's quite dramatic. I mean, there are some people on the street. But usually, the area where I'm standing here at Grand Place is bustling. And right now it's pretty deserted.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. She's giving us the latest after Belgian police detained 21 people, searching for a man described as a planner or coordinator of the Paris attacks. Dina, thanks as always.

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