An autopsy on the remains of fugitive soldier Jürgen Conings was started last night, and is expected to conclude this morning, with results expected some time later.
The post-mortem should offer some answers to the questions still surrounding the case: how long had Conings been dead before his remains were stumbled upon by some cyclists? And how did he really meet his end?
Conings’ remains were discovered yesterday morning in the Dilserbos in Limburg province, part of the Hoge Kempen National Park. He had been missing for more than a month, after disappearing from home and work having stolen some heavy weaponry.
He left behind two letters – one for his partner apologising for what was about to happen, and another to the police threatening an attack of some kind, and targetting in particular virologist Marc Van Ranst.
Van Ranst was moved to a safe house, but has now returned to his own home.
Conings remained on the run despite massive searches of the National Park, and it now appears likely he was there or near there all along.
For federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw, whose office is in charge of the investigation because of terrorist suspicions, there is no doubt that the remains discovered are those of Conings. In addition, “in all likelihood” the signs point to suicide by firearm.
When discovered, Conings was surrounded by a machine pistol, a handgun, an axe and a knife.
The main questions the autopsy can be expected to answer are how long he had been dead before being found, and whether the deadly shot was fired by Conings himself.
As to the latter question, friends and supporters have already claimed he did not kill himself, but must have been discovered during one of the many searches and his murder made to look like suicide. However even clear scientific evidence is unlikely to dislodge that sort of theory from the minds of supporters.
The first question – how long had he been dead – will go some way to explaining how the massed police and troops of not only Belgium but also borrowed from Germany and the Netherlands could continue to be evaded by one man for so long.
According to a hunter who claimed to have seen the body, it was covered from view by tall ferns, leaning against a tree. The hunter, and Maaseik mayor Johan Tollenaere, both of whom reported a strong smell of decomposition in the area, were only alerted by the effects of time. Before the recent warm weather, Conings’ remains could have remained undetected for some time.
• Some reactions to yesterday’s news:
“My thoughts first and foremost go out to Jürgen Conings’ family. We will take all measures to avoid such events in the future.” – Ludivine Dedonder, defence minister.
“Of course this is a relief, but you are never happy when someone dies.” – Marc Van Ranst, after a month in hiding.
“It was like looking for a single grain of rice in a place the area of 24,000 football fields.” – a spokesperson for the police explains the measure of the search.
“Based on new recent elements, the OCAD confirmed that there is no longer an imminent threat. Based on this information, the existing security measures in this file were adjusted.” – the National Crisis Centre cancels the terrorist threat.
“My thoughts go out in the first place to his partner, his family and his loved ones who have lost someone who was dear to them. Still, I was somewhat relieved to learn that there were no other victims.” – Michel Hofman, chief of defence staff.
“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 Jürgen? We do. What a bizarre coincidence that the mayor of Maaseik just found him.”
• If you have been having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about someone else, contact one of the help organisations listed here.