Liege attack shrouded in mystery

 

The Belgian city of Liege was left asking itself "why?" today in the wake of the random Christmas market gun and grenade attack that left three dead.

There were no immediate answers to why Nordine Amrani, a 33-year-old criminal, swept into a Christmas market to unleash a rampage that also wounded 123 others, then killed himself.

Deepening the mystery, police announced that the body of a cleaning lady had been found in a shed where Amrani grew cannabis close to his home.

Liege Prosecutor Daniele Reynders said, after searches of Amrani's house, terrorism could be excluded.

"It was a cleaning lady. This is how she met him yesterday morning," she said. "She dies, shot with a bullet in the head."

The Ferris Wheel at Liege's Christmas market started turning again today, hoping to restore some festive cheer, but the mood remained sombre.

"The crowds won't show up," said Francoise Robert, selling miniature castles and Christmas items. "People are scared."

At the outdoor bus depot that Amrani attacked, a long parade of people bundled against the wind and rain paid tribute to the victims. Young women cried and families lit candles as shards of unswept glass still littered the pavement.

"Warum (why)?" asked one card, surrounded by toys, flowers and candles. The victims included an 18-month old girl and two teenage boys, both students. Five others are reported in critical condition.

Adelie Miguel, a 48-year-old resident of Spanish descent, placed a bouquet of white tulips against the shattered bus stop.

"We are all Liegeois, united in suffering," she said. "This was an act of a sick man."

Beyond the dead and injured, Ms Reynders said 40 other people had to be treated for psychological trauma.

In the capital, Brussels, the government pledged to toughen the gun law and put stricter controls on multiple offenders on conditional release. Amrani, who had done jail time for offences involving guns and drugs, had been called in for questioning on Tuesday by police in a sexual abuse case.

Amrani's lawyer said his client had been particularly scared over the last few days that he would be jailed again. It is unclear, however, if this was the tipping point.

"He was extremely nervous," Jeann-Francois Dister said. "He was impulsive but what he did was unbelievable."

Even though he still had more grenades and more rounds of ammunition with him, Amrani turned a gun on himself and shot himself in the face.

Officials said he left his Liege home with a backpack, armed with hand grenades, a revolver and an assault rifle. He walked alone onto a busy central square, then got onto a platform that gave him an ideal view of the area, bedecked with a Christmas tree and crowded with shoppers.

From there, he lobbed three hand grenades toward nearby bus shelters, explosions that scattered glass across a wide area. He then opened fire on the crowd, prompting a stampede as hundreds fled in panic. Some ran grasping the hands of young children who had come to see the Christmas market.

In Liege, a melting pot of immigrant communities whose members worked the blast furnaces and coal mines here for decades, some people feared a backlash: Amrani had a foreign heritage, even if he was Belgian-born. In Belgium, racial stereotypes tend to surface quickly when crime is involved.

Cedric Christiaens, a 20-year-old language student living close to the square, said the outrage will only grow when more people realise that Amrani was able to walk the streets on conditional release despite previous jail time and convictions for illegal gun possession and drugs.

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