Police and members of a forensics team stand at the entrance to a Mosque following petrol bomb attack in Brussels on March 12, 2012. — Photo AFP
BRUSSELS: An axe-wielding arsonist burst into a Belgian mosque Monday, killing the imam and destroying much of the building in an attack local Muslims tipped as the work of Sunni extremists.
Police said the man, detained after mosque personnel trapped him inside the building, apparently used fuel to set fire to the Rida mosque near Brussels’ international rail hub, killing 46-year-old father-of-four Abdallah Dadou.
The victim, who died of smoke inhalation, was described by worshipper Abdel Adouzeyneb, a 39-year-old real estate agent, as “a person who was loved by everybody — he was open, well integrated, smiling and happy.” A second person who was with the victim at the time of the attack sustained minor injuries.
Police were unable to immediately name the suspect as he lacked identity papers, but authorities said the man described himself as a Muslim born in 1978. Authorities are investigating his motives and whether he had accomplices.
Azzedine Laghmich, an official at the mosque, told AFP the attacker was “a Salafist,” who sprayed petrol inside the mosque before setting it alight and shouting Sunni slogans on his way out — cries related to the conflict in Syria.
“All the eyewitness accounts said so,” Laghmich added.
Isabelle Praile, another senior official in Belgium’s organised Muslim community, said the Rida mosque “had already been placed under police protection several years ago,” citing direct threats from members of the ultra-conservative Salafist movement.
Around 100 men gathered on the edge of a police cordon near the mosque, angrily chanting Shiite slogans while some cried and others hugged and prayed.
Police forensics teams scoured the scene of the attack.
“I brought my eight-year-old son here with me so that he can see blind hate, what it can do,” said Ismael Ben Mohammad, 40, adding that he felt “a sadness difficult to describe.” The mayor of the city’s Anderlecht ward, Gaetan Van Goidsenhoven, appealed for calm at an overnight press conference, saying it was “not only necessary to live side-by-side, but also to allow justice and the police to do their work.”
Prosecutor Jean-Marc Meilleur said the arson suspect had come armed with a knife and an axe, but that “people inside the mosque managed to lock him in the building” before police arrived.
“At the moment, there is only one suspect,” he said, without excluding accomplices and stressing it was “too soon” to pin down possible motives.
The area around the 2,000-capacity mosque, one of four Shia centres of worship in the city’s overwhelming majority Sunni Muslim community, has a large immigrant Muslim population.