'No place for extremists' in Belgian military, says Defence Minister

'No place for extremists' in Belgian military, says Defence Minister
Military personnel during the search for Jürgen Conings. Credit: Belga

Belgium's Minister of Defence Ludivine Dedonder stated that there is "no place for extremists" in the military in the Chamber, where she was questioned about the still ongoing manhunt for corporal Jürgen Conings (46).

Conings, who was been hiding from the police since Tuesday after taking weapons from a military base, was previously placed under covert surveillance by military intelligence for his extreme rightwing views, and was also included on a list of the terrorist risk analysis unit OCAM as a PGE: a potentially violent extremist.

"Let it be clear that there is no place for extremists with Defence. This individual was followed, but we have to conclude that it was not enough," Dedonder said, responding to questions about how the man was able to access heavy weaponry.

"The behaviour was apparently no longer considered problematic by the higher-ups, until a few days ago," she said. "It should not have happened that that person had access to weapons."

Dedonder wants to take several measures "in the short term," such as stricter security checks when recruiting soldiers, because the ones in place are "no longer sufficient." Additionally, these checks should be increased throughout a person's career in the military.

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On top of that, Dedonder promised "tough measures" against military personnel with racist, sexist, fascist or other extremist ideas, including a ban on access to military quarters and armouries, suspension and even dismissal, "if the behaviour is incompatible with the military statutes."

Dedonder, however, received a lot of criticism from MPs in the Chamber on Thursday as this threat is "not new," according to socialist Kris Verduyckt.

"When I recently questioned you, Minister Dedonder, about the 30 soldiers with extreme right-wing ideas, you said 'there's not much we can do about it'," he said. "Surely that is madness!"

Verduyckt referred to news reported by RTBF in March this year, that the military intelligence service SGRS was keeping a group of around 30 military personnel under close surveillance because of their extreme right-wing leanings.

However, the threat then was described by a spokesperson for Dedonder as "minimal."

In the Chamber, Verduyckt stressed that those right-wing extremist ideas continue to develop within the military. "We train these people to handle weapons and to kill. The only reason there are no deaths yet, is because he hasn't fired yet. What legislation do we need to fire these kinds of extremists for they are a danger to society?"

According to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, the "task for Defence is very clear: the internal procedures and controls must absolutely be tightened," he said in the Chamber.

He stressed that it is "unacceptable" that someone who is seen as a potentially dangerous person can have free access to weapons.

"For some years now, the threat from the extreme right has been increasing, and gaining more and more ground," De Croo said. "Apart from the jihadist threat, the extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing threat is growing."

"In our society, there is no place for hate speech, unbridled racism, calls for hatred and violence are unacceptable. Whether it is against virologists, scientists, political opponents, such things are punishable by law and we can never accept them," he added. "There is no place for it in our society, neither in the government nor in the security services."

In the meantime, the manhunt for Conings is still ongoing in the Hoge Kempen National Park, which is being swept thoroughly. Additionally, Dutch police have confirmed that special units are on standby in the Netherlands in case he tries to cross the border, and German troops have also been mobilised.

According to reports in local media, the special units and support from abroad have been authorised to kill.

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