Thursday, October 21

Belgium seeks an armed extreme right-wing soldier who threatened to kill the country’s star virologist


Updated

Jurgen Conings seized heavy weapons and ammunition and has been missing since Monday, after leaving a farewell letter promising not to surrender without resistance.

Jurgen Conings.
Jurgen Conings.AP
  • Blgica A Belgian farmer moves the border with France to pass with his tractor

Belgium is desperately searching for an armed man, radicalized and that he has threatened the death of virologist Marc Van Ranst, the country’s great Covid-19 specialist and a permanent figure in the media since the outbreak of the pandemic.

The suspect, identified as Jurgen Conings, is 46 years old. He is a male, white, military by profession, close to the extreme right, who was already on a list of possible terrorist threats and that he has fled heavily armed. The ‘hunt’ began on Monday, when a relative called 911 after finding two goodbye letters at his home in Lanklaar. One of them was addressed to his girlfriend. In the other, Conings wrote that he could no longer live “in a society where politicians and virologists have taken everything from us “, so he announced “that he would join the resistance and would not surrender without a fight,” according to the newspaper ‘De Standaard’.

He did not return that day after finishing a work shift and has not been seen since. The police have found his car, an Audi Q5, abandoned and without license plates near a forest, in the town of Dilsen-Stokkem, in Limburg. In it, according to local media, heavy weapons were found, including a rocket launcher. Pistols, machine guns and a bulletproof vest were missing from the armory of his barracks, collected under the pretext of shooting and programmed maneuvers. “The arsenal of weapons it possesses is sufficient for a small war”, the Police have said. The most dangerous, presumably the rocket launchers, have been recovered, but they are believed to remain heavily armed and abundant with ammunition.

Van Ranst and his family have been escorted by security forces to a secret location. The virologist, a professor at the University of Leuven, has received many threats in recent months, as have figures with a similar presence in other countries. He is the same or more meditative than Fernando Simón in Spain or Anthony Fauci, the person in charge of the USA and who has been moving with an escort since the beginning of last year. The Belgian is a reputed figure, enormously popular, especially in Flanders. His face is well known and there are thousands of jokes about his interventions or jokes due to his wide repertoire of colored jerseys, with which he usually appears on the plats. Aware of the threats, he had refused the escort, but a patrol of agents constantly watched his home.

Conings would have made him the target of his anger, like other groups that deny the virus or that hold him responsible for the confinement measures in the country. The Police have found emails, messages on social networks and some letters handwritten by the military. “It is feared that he will carry out a violent action, against himself or against other people, but the possible correct targets are not yet clear “, has explained the prosecutor Eric Van Duyse.

Neighbors have explained to the Flemish media that the suspect was known in the neighborhood. “Big but friendly”, according to testimonies collected by Nieuwsblad. “We knew he had extreme right-wing sympathies. He also organized a neighborhood watch through a WhatsApp group with which we can warn of suspicious movements. We’ve never heard him say anything bad about Marc Van Ranst or virologists. We knew that he was in the military and that he was very into fitness and bodybuilding. He has also been to Afghanistan several times, “say his street neighbors. During the pandemic, he offered to give gymnastics classes to neighbors in the local parks. On his Facebook profile there are photos and videos of training sessions, dragging tractor tires or tree trunks, climbing ropes and ladders, and lifting weights.

Two years under surveillance

The suspect was questioned by the police last July after being identified for his attacks and threatening messages against the virologist and some political officials on social networks. He was released without charge, but his name was left on a list of possible terrorist threats, and when the weapons disappeared from the barracks the alarms went off. There are clear records of his slogans against immigration, Islam, the building of mosques, and political leaders. Also regularly spread all kinds of conspiracy theories. It was not concealed and the most that is on record is an administrative sanction.

In a repetition of the scandalous security breaches prior to the 2016 jihadist attacks, the country today wonders how it is possible that the military continued in the Army despite having been under surveillance for two years. The OCAD, the body that manages risk and threats to public security, warned about it in 2019 and asked for special control. They knew of his sympathies with extreme right-wing groups, as about 30 soldiers are currently being investigated and he was one of them. But there was also evidence of recent specific threats. And even so, he remained at his post and with access to heavy weaponry.

Both the Army and OCAD had evidence of links between Jurgen Conings and Thomas Boutens, gur of the extreme right in Flanders. Boutens, also a former military man, was convicted in 2014 as the leader of the neo-Nazi group Blood, Soil, Honor and Faith (BBET), which the court considers a terrorist organization. Boutens has posted a message of support on social media for his fugitive “brother in arms”. “Wherever you are, you are not alone, even if it is in a world that spits on the faithful.”

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