Belgian protest goes on despite justice promise

Belgium's justice minister pledged to reinforce inquiries into the country's child sex and murder scandals yesterday as nationwide protests continued over the sacking of the judge leading investigations.

Seeking to calm the anger generated by the handling of the case, Stefaan De Clerck told a parliamentary committee that a second investigating magistrate would be appointed to the probe.

"Everything is being done to pursue the investigation," he said, adding that 350 people are now working full time on the case sifting through 5,000 videos of child pornography for incriminating evidence.

An outcry followed Monday's high court ruling in which the judge Jean- Marc Connerotte was removed from the case, fuelling suspicions of a political and judicial cover-up.

Confidence in the institutions of state has been at best fragile since August when the bodies of four young girls were found buried at houses owned by a convicted rapist, Marc Dutroux.

Accusations of bungling and complicity levelled at the authorities have been led by the families of the victims.

The government is bracing itself for more trouble on Sunday when at least 50,000 people are expected to converge on Brussels in support of Mr Connerotte, who was taken off the case because of alleged bias in attending a function organised by families of the victims.

The same judge was removed from the inquiry into the murder of the former deputy Prime Minister Andre Cools when in 1994 he signalled he was on the brink of a major breakthrough. The Belgian newspaper, La Libre Belgique, suggested yesterday that Mr Connerotte may have tracked down evidence linking senior political figures to the Dutroux affair.

Mr De Clerck denied yesterday that he had brought pressure to bear on the families to drop an appeal against the ruling of the country's highest court to remove Mr Connerotte. The decision to abandon their appeal came after a tense meeting with the minister on Tuesday night.

A second day of spontaneous protests and strikes again underlined the strength of emotion in Belgium following the latest developments.

Bus drivers in Charleroi and Namur voted for a one-day strike while 500 steelworkers at a plant near Charleroi, birthplace of Marc Dutroux, stopped work to march past one of his homes in the village of Marcinelle. Roads near Charleroi airport were blocked off by workers from the Sabca Aeronautics factory.

The revelations surrounding the Dutroux affair have, it is believed, served to drive a further wedge between Belgium's already divided linguistic communities, with many Flemings seeking to distance themselves from the macabre discoveries around Charleroi in French-speaking Wallonia. But the latest wave of discontent has crossed the linguistic divide. Hundreds of students threw eggs and smashed the windows of the law courts in Antwerp, the Flemish capital, while a few miles away in Mechelen demonstrators blocked several of the city's major roads. In Genk, also in Flanders, Ford workers halted production for a spontaneous protest.

The upheavals caused by the Dutroux affair have attracted intense outside attention, another source of dismay for the Belgians whose profile internationally is that of a placid, conformist and law-abiding people.

Mass protest however is not a newly discovered phenomenon. Modern Belgium was born in 1830 after William of Holland tried to force through unpopular reforms on hostile Belgian subjects.

Simmering discontent throughout the winter of 1829 climaxed the following year when in an apparently spontaneous uprising the people of Brussels took to the streets and stormed government buildings.

That sparked the revolution which led eventually to independence.

Similarly mass rallies in the summer of 1950 and a national strike forced the abdication of King Leopold III because he was perceived to have been complicit in the Nazi occupation of the country.

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