Manhunt for armed soldier: large nature park closed, four anti-tank weapons found

Manhunt for armed soldier: large nature park closed, four anti-tank weapons found
Credit: Belga/Federal police

In the ongoing search for Jürgen Conings (46), an armed soldier hiding from police after taking weapons from a military base and making threats against virologist Marc Van Ranst, the Hoge Kempen National Park in Limburg has been closed.

The man's car was already found close to the National Park on Tuesday, and "there are strong indications that [he] might be in that park," the federal public prosecutor told VRT. Conings is thought not to have another car, and investigators assume he has been moving on foot since yesterday.

According to the prosecutor, heavy weaponry including four anti-tank rocket launchers and ammunition, was found in his car. However, Conings is still believed to be armed, presumably with an FN P90 submachine gun, a smaller pistol and a bulletproof vest, reports De Standaard.

"In consultation with the National Crisis Centre, I have indeed ordered the closure of the Hoge Kempen National Park," Limburg Governor Jos Lantmeeters confirmed to local media. "There is a ban on walking and cycling."

However, it concerns a vast park of about 12,000 hectares of forest and heathland with several entrance gates, where you could easily spend days without coming across anyone else. Currently, it is forbidden to enter, and people who are in the vicinity are advised to follow the directions of the police.

Additionally, the helicopter of the Federal Police has also been circling above the Dilserbos woods in the Dilsen-Stokkem municipality, where Conings lives, since Wednesday afternoon.

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Meanwhile, it has become clear that the man has a troubled past, and has even been signalled as a potential terrorist threat by OCAM, the organisation charged with the assessment of terrorist threats.

Now, that threat level was raised to the highest level, which means there are very concrete indications of plans, and thus a "degree of imminence," specifically because of Conings.

The search for Conings has been going on for over 30 hours now, since he disappeared on Tuesday afternoon, leaving behind a note stating he would not surrender easily.

Over the course of Wednesday afternoon, a whole column of police vehicles arrived at the National Park, as well as at least one armoured army vehicle.

In total, 250 people are involved in the action, mainly police officers, with the support of military personnel. They are currently doing sweeps in three demarcated zones "based on elements in the investigation," the public prosecutor told VRT.

Earlier on Wednesday, the federal police also issued an official search notice. "Conings is about 1.80 m tall and is muscular. He is bald and has several tattoos, including on his upper arms. At the time of his disappearance, he was wearing a Timberland T-shirt (dark colour)."

"He may be in possession of firearms. If found, the police should be informed immediately, without contacting the person involved," the notice reads. "Jurgen Conings is asked to report to the nearest police department as soon as possible."

In the meantime, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo reacted strongly to the case on VTM News on Wednesday afternoon, saying that it is "unacceptable that someone on the OCAM list is active in Defence, and gets access to weapons."

The army command announced that an investigation is being conducted, and that Defence and the security services will provide an analysis on Thursday.

On Tuesday, Van Ranst and his family were taken to an undisclosed safe location by the security service, where they are supposed to stay until Conings is taken into police custody.

Update (7:30 PM): This article has been updated to include sweeps being carried out by 250 police officers and military personnel in the park.

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