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Germany arrest militants planning 'attack' in Syria

Suspected cell of Turkish and Russian nationals detained in Germany hours after two Syria returnees killed in Belgium raid
Scenes from the attack in the town of Verviers in Belgium on Thursday (AFP)

More than 200 German police officers raided suspected militant sites in and around Berlin early on Friday, arresting an alleged leader of a group planning to carry out an attack in Syria, police said.

At least two people have been arrested, including a 41-year-old man of Turkish origin, identified as Ismet D., who is suspected of "leading an Islamist extremist group made up of Turkish and Russian nationals from (the Caucasus regions' of) Chechnya and Dagestan," the police said in a statement, adding that "there is no indication that the group was preparing attacks inside Germany."

The other man, identified as Emin F., 43, is suspected of organising the financing, the statement said, adding there was "no indication that the group planned attacks inside Germany".

The two men were part of a group of five people, all of Turkish origin, who had been under investigation by police and prosecutors for several months, they added.

The were under suspicion of preparing a serious act of violence in Syria and money laundering.

No details of the Syria attack plan have been released.

The German raids came just hours after Belgian police concluded a major anti-terror operation which resulted in the deaths of two suspects and the arrest of a third on suspicion of planning a major attack in the country.

"Operations on the ground are now over. We are now exploiting the information [gathered in the raids]," Belgium's Foreign Minister Didier Reynders told France's iTele news channel on Friday.

The suspects were killed during a raid-turned-shootout, the country's federal prosecutor said in a press conference in Brussels soon after. No civilians or police officers were injured.

Officials said the men, who recently returned from Syria, were believed to be part of an operational cell and were planning a large-scale, imminent attack on a police station. 

"We have foiled this attack," said Eric Van der Spyt, federal prosecutor spokesman. "We have been monitoring the suspects for several weeks, from before the Paris attack."

Belgium has raised its threat levels, with officials saying that police buildings and officers continue to be prime targets. 

No links have been found between the alleged plot in Belgium and the attacks in Paris last week, officials said.

Belgian police became suspicious of the suspects in Brussels while monitoring a group of people who returned from Syria. 

When the police raided a building in the town of Verviers in eastern Belgium around 6pm on Thursday, the suspects opened fire with automatic weapons. Fire was reportedly exchanged for several minutes with nearby witnesses describing a series of explosions, ending in a fire on the upper level of the building.

"I heard a sort of explosion, followed by several gunshots," one local resident told RTBF. "For the moment, I cannot tell you anymore because I don't dare go out to see what is happening."

Another local resident said "machineguns were firing for about 10 minutes."

A third witness said he saw two young men apparently of North African origin "dressed all in black carrying a bag of the same colour," adding that the pair looked terrified.

Further raids took place in and around Brussels, leading to the arrests of 13 suspected militants. 

The incident comes as Europe is on high alert after 17 people were killed in the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket in Paris last week. 

In May 2014, four people were shot dead in an attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who had previously been in Syria, has been charged with murder.

Three Islamic State (IS) group militants threatened attacks on Belgium in a video broadcast on Wednesday, the Belga news agency reported.

Paris gunman probe 

Belgian investigators said Thursday they were probing whether an arms dealer sold weapons used in the Paris attacks, after confirming supermarket gunman Amedy Coulibaly sold the man a car belonging to his partner Hayat Boumeddiene.

There was no immediate confirmation of any link between the Coulibaly investigation and Thursday's raid.

The man, Neetin Karasular, from the airport city of Charleroi in French-speaking southern Belgium, is in detention on suspicion of a possible link to the weapons used in the Paris attacks.

"The issue of weapons is under investigation," prosecutors' office spokesman Eric Van der Sijpt told AFP, adding that Karasular was under suspicion for "arms trafficking

Belgian prosecutors are working with French authorities to establish any "possible link" to last week's Paris attacks.

Coulibaly, who was killed by police on Friday, is also believed to have shot dead a policewoman in another Paris attack.

Van der Sijpt added that the Belgian suspect "bought the car belonging to Coulibaly's wife".

Karasular handed himself into police on Tuesday, saying he had been in contact with Coulibaly in recent months and had tried to "swindle" the Frenchman over the car deal, but was scared after the Paris attacks.

Investigators searched his house and found documents proving the sale of the vehicle and papers showing negotiations with Coulibaly about arms and ammunition, including a Tokarev pistol of the sort used by the Frenchman during the supermarket attack, Belga said.

Karasular will appear before a magistrate in Charleroi on Monday who will decide whether he will remain in custody.

Spain meanwhile opened an investigation Thursday into Coulibaly and Boumeddiene's visit to Madrid shortly before the attacks.

Turkish authorities say Boumeddiene crossed into Syria on 8 January from Turkey. She had arrived in Istanbul on a flight from Madrid before the Paris attacks took place.

Pieter Stockmans contributed to this report.

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