Europe

Brussels lockdown: How is city affected by terror threat?

  • 24 November 2015
  • From the section Europe
Soldiers stood guard on Tuesday in the normally busy Rue du Midi (24 Nov) Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Soldiers stood guard on Tuesday in the normally busy Rue du Midi

Brussels is under lockdown for a fourth consecutive day, and on the highest state of alert over fears of a Paris-style attack by the militant Islamic State group.

While the suspected gunman from the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, remains at large, much of the Belgian capital has come to a standstill.

Soldiers are patrolling the streets and the metro and local schools are staying shut.

But the authorities say normality will begin to return on Wednesday.

Here the BBC looks at how the lockdown is affecting different aspects of life in the city.


Schools

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Some families arrived at school to discover the doors closed

Schools and universities were closed for a second day on Tuesday under the strict security measures.

In a statement (in French), education officials said all lessons would be suspended on the orders of Belgium's National Security Council at nurseries, primary and secondary schools. No children would be admitted.

The Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) said it was cancelling classes and closing facilities including libraries, parks, and exhibition halls. The Vrije Universiteit Brussel advised all staff to work from home if they could but said it aimed to resume normal activity on Wednesday.

Nadine Rosa-Rossa, a school teacher in the Molenbeek district where anti-terror police have focused their operations, told the BBC's Newsday programme that she thought the measures were "excessive".

"It's like we are in a war," she said. "It's not a good thing for the children, for the teachers, for everybody."

Others spoke of the disbelief that schools would re-open on Wednesday when the main suspect was still at large and the terror alert at its highest.

But Brussels authorities say schools have not been cited as targets and the government has instructed the schools to take security measures such as creating safe rooms for children in the event of an emergency. Some 300 police will help step up security when schools reopen on Wednesday.


Transport

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gare du Midi metro station was closed but overground trams and trains were running

Transport authorities in Brussels suspended the city's Metro underground transport system and some bus routes, with others running a reduced service. Only overground trams and trains were operating.

The restrictions were set to continue until Wednesday, the Brussels Intermunicipal Transport company (STIB) said, and ministers announced that an extra 200 police would be patrolling the metro to help provide security.

Image copyright Getty Images

Commuters travelling into the city reported quiet trains and empty streets, with some describing a sense of unease.

Road traffic spiked in Brussels as people sought alternative ways to get to work.

Eurostar is running a full service but says passengers can choose to swap their ticket up to 30 November for another day free of charge.

Passengers faced tightened security checks for Thalys and TGV high-speed trains from Brussels Gare du Midi train station.


Work places

Image copyright EPA
Image caption A soldier patrols in front of the European Commission headquarters

Brussels is home to the EU's headquarters and also hosts the offices of many NGOs, think-tanks and international organisations.

Dave Baird, who works at the European Commission building, said his office was still open but very quiet.

"It's a normal working day but some colleagues have stayed at home and are too frightened to travel on the trains," he said.

Although some Nato staff members had been asked to work at home, ambassadors agreed to meet on Tuesday in response to Turkey's downing of a Russian SU 24 close to its border.

Meanwhile Olivier Willocx, head of the Brussels chamber of commerce, BECI, told public broadcaster RTBF (in French) that businesses in the city were facing "exceptional" circumstances.

Image copyright Twitter
Image caption One worker tweeted: "I could have stayed at home, you could say. But I'm at work. In the centre of Brussels you'd think it was Sunday"

He said employers should made their own decisions about whether to keep work places open, taking into account childcare demands due to the closure of schools.

Matthias Dobbelaere, who manages a legal practice with offices in Brussels, told the BBC that staff had been told to stay home for now.

"You can't let your people work in Brussels and feel safe when there is a terror threat."

While some locals complained that their city was becoming a ghost town, others bridled at the idea. "I live in Brussels. Yes, it's quieter in the centre but I don't see a beleaguered ghost town and I don't feel it either," one person tweeted, appealing for everything to be put in perspective.

Image copyright Twitter

Speaking to the BBC, Letitia Rawlings, who lives in the city, said there was a "very strange atmosphere".

"In general, people seem scared to go out," she said, adding that the terror threat dominated conversations.


'Disaster' for hotels, restaurants and cafes

The tourism sector has been badly hit in the Belgian capital, with visitors finding many shops, bars and cinemas shut.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Cafes struggled to attract customers in central Brussels

While the city's main tourist attractions, such as the Grand Place central square, were unusually quiet, cafes and restaurants struggled to attract customers.

Hotels, restaurants and cafes were "licking their wounds" after a disastrous weekend, reported De Standaard newspaper.

"There are no clients to be seen, just staff. In the hotels it's a flood of cancellations. It's obvious that anyone who didn't have to be in Brussels has stayed away," complained Marc Van Muylders from the Brussels hotel and catering sector.

The US embassy in Brussels urged its citizens to "shelter in place and remain at home".

Brussels airport is open and all flights are running as normal, however there are increased security measures in place.

Compiled by Jasmine Coleman. Interviews by Stephen Fottrell.