The cobblestone streets of Liège were turned into a bloody battlefield yesterday as a known criminal with a passion for guns opened fire on Christmas shoppers, killing four and wounding more than 70 before killing himself.
Shoppers dived for cover shortly after noon as a series of explosions and gunfire erupted across the city's main square, Place Saint Lambert. Witnesses described seeing a man hurling grenades from the roof of a bakery overlooking the square at a group of people who were waiting for a bus. He then followed up with repeated bursts from an automatic rifle.
Police named the attacker as Nordine Amrani, a 33-year-old drug dealer and convicted criminal, who collected illegal weapons.
His victims were two teenagers who had just finished an exam and a 75-year-old woman, according to the city's public prosecutor. Last night surgeons lost the battle to save a two-year-old girl, who died of her injuries. A further four patients were in a critical condition.
One of the dead teenagers was named locally as Pierre Gerouville. Tributes poured in to a Facebook page set up to honour the 17-year-old. "I can't find the words," wrote one of his friends. "You left too soon, we'll never forget you."
Amrani died in the attack but police say he was not brought down by their fire. "It's uncertain yet whether he killed himself or whether his weapons exploded," public prosecutor Danielle Reynders told a news conference.
Immediately after the attack confusion reigned as shoppers ran for cover and desperately tried to work out whether there were multiple attackers. Place Saint Lambert is a busy thoroughfare and close to a popular Christmas market.
"We heard two huge deafening noises and then lots of explosions, people were running everywhere," a baker named only as Patricia said on RTL-TV. "We closed the door, turned off the lights and hid behind the counter with the customers."
Early reports suggested there was more than one shooter but last night officials insisted the attack was carried out by a lone gunman.
They also dismissed any link to international terrorism as well as rumours that the attack was an attempt to free someone from the nearby courthouse.
Belgium's Interior Minister Jöelle Milquet described the attack as "an isolated act of violence" and insisted that there was no evidence "in any sense" that suggested terrorism. It is not known what motivated Amrani to carry out his devastating assault but police said he was on parole and had failed to show up for a meeting with them that morning. Officers disclosed that the Liège resident had been sentenced to 58 months in prison three years ago for possession of weapons, ammunition and 2,800 cannabis plants. He also had a string of earlier convictions, including for sexual abuse.
It was not clear how Amrani was able to buy weapons while on parole but it is clear that he was heavily armed for the attack. At a press conference yesterday evening, officials said Amrani had been found in possession of a pistol, a Belgium-made FAL assault rifle and a number of unexploded grenades.
Television footage from the scene showed spatters of blood on the square's cobblestones as well as the body of a man lying in the street. Many of those injured in yesterday's attack are thought to be from a large group of teenagers who had just finished taking school exams.
One 17-year-old student, Ismael, told Belgian radio that the attacker, "was shooting in all directions, and seemed to aim his gun at some of the girls in the bus shelter. We saw the bullets smash windows, the girls were crying on the ground. But I couldn't help them, I was running for my life."Reuse content