x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Belgian gunman feared being sent back to jail

The body of a fourth victim, a 45-year-old woman, was found yesterday at the home of Nordine Amrani, 33, a convicted criminal with a history of drug-dealing and illegal firearms possession.

The Belgian gunman who launched a lunchtime attack with firearms and grenades in a busy city centre, killing three people and wounding scores of others, harboured grudges against the law and society, lawyers who have acted for him said yesterday.

The body of a fourth victim, a 45-year-old woman, was found yesterday at the home of Nordine Amrani, 33, a convicted criminal with a history of drug-dealing and illegal firearms possession.

Amrani, who was on parole, killed himself after the massacre on Tuesday in the city of Liège, 95 kilometres east of the capital Brussels, according to officials. Media reports quoted his legal advisers as saying he feared being sent back to jail after being "set up by people who wanted to harm him".

It was originally thought Amrani died when one of his grenades exploded prematurely, but Danièle Reynders, the Liège public prosecutor, told a press conference yesterday: "He committed suicide with a bullet to the head." The woman whose body was discovered at the gunman's home worked as a cleaner. She was found in a shed where Amrani stored cannabis plants and weapons. Tests were being conducted to establish whether she had been sexually assaulted.

Ms Reynders said the woman had been shot in the head before Amrani went to the Place Saint-Lambert, in the centre of Liège, armed with several grenades, an assault rifle and a revolver.

A boy aged 15 was killed at the scene as Amrani opened fire at random, while a 17-year-old boy and a child of 17 months died in hospital from their wounds. A 75-year-old woman, previously reported as dead, was later said to be alive but under intensive care. More than 120 other people were also injured.

As a minute's silence was observed in Liège yesterday to commemorate the victims, investigators were studying Amrani's background to establish a motive for what onlookers and officials said appeared to have been an attempt to kill as many people as possible.

When Amrani went to the roof of a baker's shop to launch his attack the streets were crowded with shoppers and also students, many of whom had been sitting end-of-term examinations. It would have been busier still had bad weather not delayed the opening of a Christmas market.

"We heard two huge, deafening noises and then lots of explosions. People were running everywhere," said a member of the baker's staff, identified as Patricia. "We closed the door, turned off the lights and hid behind the counter with the customers."

No message explaining Amrani's intentions has been found but prosecutors immediately ruled out any link with terrorism.

At least one early report speculated about a possible connection with a recently concluded "honour killing" trial, although that involved a Pakistani family while Amrani's origins are Moroccan and acquaintances said he did was not Muslim.

Belgian media reported that before launching his attacks, Amrani transferred a sum of money to his fiancee's bank account with the message: "I love you my love. Good luck."

If a clear explanation for his actions remained open to question yesterday, more became known about the perpetrator of the latest in a wave of deadly shooting sprees in Europe.

Amrani was a welder by trade but had a long criminal record, having most recently been sentenced in 2008 to up to four years and 10 months in prison for growing cannabis plants.

That case followed the discovery of drugs but also an arsenal of arms, including a rocket launcher, an AK47 rifle and several revolvers, at his home. He reportedly made his own silencers.

One focus of the present investigation will be to establish how a small-time criminal in a provincial Belgian city was able to acquire military firearms and grenades. When his home was raided, he refused to reveal the origins of his weapons or why he had them.

Amrani was given a conditional release in October 2010 but was arrested again recently in connection with allegations of sexual abuse. The attack in Liege coincided with the time of an appointment he had with prosecutors to be interviewed about those accusations.

"He feared being returned to prison," Jean-François Dister, Amrani's defence lawyer, was quoted as saying by the London Daily Telegraph. "He called me twice on Monday afternoon and on Tuesday morning about it. What worried him most was to be jailed again. According to my client it was a set-up by people who wanted to harm him. Mr Amrani had a grudge against the law. He thought he had been wrongfully convicted."

The newspaper also quoted his family lawyer, Abdelhadi Amrani, to whom he was not related, as saying: "He was crazy about weapons but as a collector. He felt he had not had much luck in life and felt unfairly treated by the courts. This was a ... tormented soul, estranged from justice, and against society."

The lawyer added that he "did not feel at all Moroccan", considering himself Belgian. "He did not speak a word of Arabic and was not Muslim."

Europe has seen several mass attacks in recent years. In by far the worst, 69 people were killed at a summer holiday camp run by Norway's ruling Labour party after eight had died in a blast at government buildings in Oslo. Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing extremist, was arrested for both attacks.

On the same day as the attack-- in Liège, another right-wing extremist opened fire at a market in the Italian city of Florence, killing two street traders.