June 15, 2024 2:14 am

Belgian justice minister under protection over kidnap plot

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s justice minister remained under strict protection Monday after four people suspected of taking part in a plot by alleged drug criminals to kidnap him were arrested in the Netherlands.

Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne said in a message on social media that he is “safe and in good hands” but will have to skip some activities in the coming days.

In a video message relayed by broadcaster RTBF, Van Quickenborne said he was told by the country’s federal prosecutor that he was the target of a kidnapping plot and that the suspects would soon be extradited to Belgium. The minister mentioned the “drugs mafia.”

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the threat against Van Quickenborne is “purely unacceptable.”

“Let me be clear: We will not be intimidated by anyone,” De Croo wrote on Twitter.

The federal prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press on Monday that in addition to the four arrests, an automatic weapon and a bottle of gasoline had been found last week in a vehicle in the city of Kortrijk, where Van Quickenborne is the mayor.

Later Monday, police set up a large security perimeter close to Van Quickenborne’s house and members of Belgium’s bomb disposal unit were deployed after a parcel was delivered to his place. The prosecutor’s office said the operation was a precautionary measure.

With thousands of containers on ships reaching Antwerp every day, the port city is one of Europe’s main entry spots for cocaine. Belgium has become a major hub for trafficking drugs into Europe.

Over the past two years, Belgian police have made several dozen arrests during operations of unprecedented scale.

More than 214 tons of cocaine were seized in Europe in 2020, a 6% increase from the previous year, and experts from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction believe that amount could reach 300 tons in 2022.

The expansion of the cocaine market also saw a rise in violence and corruption in the EU, with fierce competition between traffickers leading to a rise in homicides and intimidation.

“Let me be clear: The people behind this are achieving the opposite of what they aim for. It strengthens me in the belief that we need to keep fighting,” Van Quickenborne said. “The criminals feel trapped. That feeling is right. Because we will continue to fight organized crime, with more manpower and resources than before.”

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