The body of fugitive soldier Jürgen Conings has been found in the Dilserbos, some distance from where the mass search by police and troops took place in the Hoge Kempen National Park, police said. The first indications, according to the federal prosecutor's office, are that he took his own life using a firearm.
Conings disappeared on 17 May, carrying heavy weaponry from two military barracks where he was stationed. His car was discovered next day, but he has been missing ever since.
He also left behind two written messages, for police and for his wife, in which he stated his intention to carry out an attack, mentioning virologist Marc Van Ranst by name.
Professor Van Ranst was moved to a safe house, where he remains for the time being. This afternoon he reacted to new of the discovery of Conings' body.
"It is especially a relief for my son that he has been found," he told De Morgen. "I assume my stint here in the safe house will be over. The crisis center will now look into this."
“I have a number of kindred spirits, who will have heard the news by now. It's a double feeling. A person like that I have little sympathy for. But that person also has family and children, that's who my thoughts go out to. How am I doing in the safe house? I've been here for a little over a month now. And it's my birthday today, a birthday alone. Anyway, I hope to return to normal life soon.”
On Twitter, Van Ranst posted: "My thoughts go out to the family and children of Jürgen Conings. This for them is especially sad news, because they have lost a father, a family member or a friend."
Mijn gedachten gaan uit naar de nabestaanden en kinderen van Jürgen Conings. Voor hen is dit bijzonder droevig nieuws, want zij verliezen een vader, een familielid of een vriend.— Marc Van Ranst (@vanranstmarc) June 20, 2021
A massive manhunt was started to look for Conings, scouring a large area of the National Park on the ground and in the air. Belgian police were accompanied by troops, as well as logistical support from armed forces from Germany and the Netherlands, whose borders are very close to the area.
The search turned up only two clues: Conings had abandoned his car on the first evening, presumably before entering the forest. And inside the wood, searchers came across a groundsheet he may have used as a bivouac. Other than that, not a trace was found. Until today.
After his disappearance, it emerged that Conings was one of a number of soldiers on a watchlist of right-wing extremists kept by the military intelligence service. He was also classified as dangerous by the service that assesses the risk of terrorism. The question then arose: How could a man with such accusations against him be allowed access to heavy weapons?
That question has yet to be answered satisfactorily.
The news of the discovery of Conings’ remains has now been officially confirmed by the federal prosecutor's office. That office is responsible for investigations involving terrorism.
"The probable cause of death, according to the initial investigation results, is suicide by firearms.," a spokesperson said. "However, this is yet to be confirmed. A new state of affairs will be provided at the end of the day in conjunction with the crisis centre."
Members of the family, arrived close to the scene, told De Morgen they did not believe in the thesis of suicide.
“It's not possible that 500 soldiers with dogs couldn't find him. They killed him," said one of the relatives present. "I do not believe that Jürgen committed suicide. Do you know Jurgen? We do. What a bizarre coincidence that the mayor of Maaseik just found him.”
According to reports, the body was found by accident by the mayor of Maaseik, Johan Tollenaere, while he was out cycling.
According to De Morgen, Tollenaere was cycling by when he noticed an overwhelming smell of decay. He notified military and emergency services who were still in the area. Police, however, said the mayor was in the company of a group of cyclists.
"I didn't go and look myself," he said. "Judging by the smell I thought it was a corpse in an advanced state of decomposition. It wasn't up to me to discover that, but the body seemed to be close to where we passed."
Belga news agency reports a hunter also noticed the smell early this morning while mountain-biking, and thought it may be a dead animal. He returned to the scene around noon and found a bearded man dressed in black clothing, clearly dead. Around him lay a shotgun, a handgun, an axe, a knife and ammunition. He then contacted the police.
"I am sorry that I had to find the person involved in this way. I would rather have found him alive and well. It is unfortunate for his family," said Nard Houben.
A spokesperson for defence minister Ludivine Dedonder said a pathologist was on the way. He has now arrived, together with the Army's bomb disposal unit DOVO, in the event of booby-traps.
This article will be updated as new information comes in.
• If you have been having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone else, contact one of the help organisations listed here.