Belgium’s National Security Council has rejected an army request to reduce the maximum number of military personnel deployed in major Belgian cities under Operation Vigilant Guardian (OVG) to back up the federal police, a government source said on Friday.
The Council’s decision, handed down on Thursday, means the army will still be called upon to deploy up to 550 persons, the existing limit, although the actual number of boots on the ground is lower.
The Chief of Staff of Defence has been calling for months for a reduction of the number of military personnel deployed in the internal security operation, begun close to five years ago and extended on a monthly basis, to enable the units to focus more to their primary tasks.
‘Het Belang van Limburg’, ‘Gazet van Antwerpen’ and ‘Het Nieuwsblad’ newspapers on Friday reported the Army’s Chief of Operations, Major General Johan Peeters, as invoking a staff shortage as justification for the request during a visit on Thursday to Belgian troops deployed in Lithuania. According to the dailies, Major General Peeters would like the military presence on the streets reduced from 450 to 220 persons.
However, the National Security Council, comprising the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers, relevant ministers, and the heads of the police, intelligence services and Threat Assessment Coordination Body, OCAM, turned the request down at its Thursday meeting, according to two sources quoted by Belga news agency.
On Friday, the Council of Ministers decided to keep the maximum military strength within OVG at 550 for another month.
Operation Vigilant Guardian began in January 2015, reaching a peak of up to 1,800 soldiers after the terror attacks perpetrated on 22 March 2016 at Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek Subway Station in Brussels. The numbers were later scaled down, and the maximum strength is now 550, although the real number, according to figures from early October, is now about 420.