LIEGE: A lone gunman opened fire on a square packed with children and Christmas shoppers in the eastern Belgian city of Liege Tuesday, killing three people before turning the gun on himself.
More than 60 people were also wounded in the lunch-hour attack, public prosecutor Daniel Reynders said, adding that the gunman was among the two dead. The country's federal crisis centre said it was neither a terrorist incident nor linked to a pending criminal trial.
“It was a lone gunman,” the centre's Benoit Ramacker told AFP.
“It's very difficult to determine the reasons for the attack, but we're investigating all avenues.”Belgium's Home Affairs Minister Joelle Milquet broke off European Union talks and was headed for Liege after the attack, as was newly-named Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
The attack sent terrified residents running for their lives, and hours later groups of people sat weeping on sidewalks across the windy city amid the screech of ambulance sirens and the roar of helicopters hovering overhead.
The shooting took place around noon on Saint-Lambert square, home to the courthouse and located near a busy Christmas market in the town of 196,000 people.
Some reports said it was a foiled bid to rescue a suspect from the courthouse but judicial sources named the lone wolf as Nordine Amrani, who was known to police.
The sources said police had raided his Liege home recently seeking cannabis plants but had found arms instead. In 2008 he was senteced to almost five years behind bars for illegal possession of arms and growing cannabis.
There was much initial confusion over the events, with initial reports of more than one gunman.
“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.”
Journalist Nicolas Gilenne told AFP he had just left the courthouse where he was covering a trial when the attack began.
“I saw a man wave his arm and throw something at the bus shelter. I heard an explosion. He turned around, picked something else up, pulled the pin. I started to run. He was alone and seemed very much in control.
“He wanted to hurt as many people as possible. I heard four explosions and shots during about 10 seconds.” Residents earlier told local television that shots were fired across the square by gunmen posted on the rooftop of a bakery shop and grenades hurled at bus shelters and into the courthouse.
Reports had also said that two to three gunmen armed with either explosive flash grenades or killer defensive grenades were involved.
“The city centre is completely cordonned off. People are sheltering in shops or in buildings. Police are in position,” said a town hall employee contacted by AFP who asked not to be identified.
“Luckily the mayor had postponed the opening of the Christmas market due to bad weather and high winds. Otherwise many more would have died,” the source added.
Belga news agency said several “suspect” objects were found on the square and that police bomb defusal experts were on the way.