Belgians launch hunt for heavily armed soldier who threatened Covid virologist

·2-min read
Marc van Ranst, one of Belgium’s most high-profile virologists, is in police protection - hiding from a man believed to be heavily armed - ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP
Marc van Ranst, one of Belgium’s most high-profile virologists, is in police protection - hiding from a man believed to be heavily armed - ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP

A national manhunt was launched on Tuesday in Belgium and the country’s most famous coronavirus expert forced into hiding after a soldier went on the run reportedly armed with a machine gun and a missile launcher stolen from a barracks.

Local media reported that the man, a corporal who served in Afghanistan and had access to weapons because he was a shooting instructor, had links to far-right organisations and was on a terror watch list.

The 46-year-old suspect, named only as Jurgen C, had previously made threats against Marc van Ranst, one of Belgium’s most high-profile virologists, who became famous during the pandemic.

Mr van Ranst, who received three months of police protection after the initial threats, was taken to a police safehouse after the soldier’s girlfriend raised the alarm on Tuesday.

She had found two farewell letters from her partner, in which said he no longer wanted to live “in such a society ruled by politicians and virologists” and that he would “join the resistance”.

That discovery triggered a crisis meeting in Brussels with the national terror threat being raised to the highest level. Police across the country were warned that he had threatened to use his guns against the police and that he would not be taken alive.

The heavily tattooed veteran of almost 20 years is considered extremely dangerous and is thought to have a bulletproof vest and pistol as well as the launcher and machine gun, which shoots armour-piercing ammunition.

He took the weapons from his barracks where he was a shooting instructor until recently and had made threats against a series of people before his disappearance.

Helicopters and armoured vehicles were used in the manhunt, which saw two other barracks closed in case the soldier’s threat to take on the “system” meant an attack on the military. Dutch police were also notified.

His abandoned Audi was found at the edge of a forest in the region of Limburg in Flanders and checked by bomb-disposal units. The suspect’s home is in Dilsen-Stokkem, a municipality in the same province, which is close to the Dutch border.

Special forces were combing the Hoge Kempen National Park, which has more than 12,000 hectares of pine forests and heathland on Tuesday night where the soldier is believed to be hiding out.

Federal prosecutor Eric Van Duyse said: "It is feared that he intends to carry out a violent action, against himself or against other persons, but the correct possible targets are still unclear."

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