BRUSSELS (AP) — The man who killed three people during a knife and shooting rampage through the Belgian city of Liege carried out an act of “terrorist murder,” prosecutors said Wednesday, as authorities tried to establish whether he acted alone.
Benjamin Herman, an inmate released on a two-day prison furlough, attacked two female police officers with a knife from behind, stabbing them repeatedly, before stealing their weapons and shooting them as they lay on the ground, officials said. Crossing the road, he fired several shots at a 22-year old man who was a passenger in a car, killing him. Herman then took at least one woman hostage at a nearby school. When police closed in, he ran out onto the sidewalk firing and police fatally shot him. Four officers were wounded.
He yelled “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for God is great, several times during Tuesday’s rampage, prosecutors said.
The attack has shaken Belgium where police and military have been working overtime to guard public buildings for two years since coordinated suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and subway system killed 32 people and injured hundreds on March 22, 2016.
Belgian federal magistrate Wenke Roggen said Wednesday that the attack was considered “terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder.” She said it’s being treated as terrorism given the way Herman acted, which she says resembled Islamic State calls via video to attack police with knives and steal their weapons, the fact that he yelled “Allahu Akbar” and was in contact with radicalized people.
An investigating magistrate specializing in terrorism has ordered autopsies on those killed at the scene and a toxicology examination of the attacker.
Prosecutors said Herman has had several run-ins with police since he was a minor. He has been sentenced on assault, drug and insubordination charges. He left prison early Monday on furlough and should have returned Tuesday evening.
Earlier, Interior Minister Jan Jambon confirmed that Herman had already killed another person the day before the attack.
Jambon also said that the woman he took hostage may have talked the shooter down and helped to avoid more deaths inside the school.
“He also committed a murder the night before,” Jambon told broadcaster RTL. Jambon confirmed that the fourth victim was a former inmate who did prison time with Herman. Herman is alleged to have killed the man on Monday evening by hitting him over the head with a blunt object.
Jambon, Prime Minister Charles Michel and King Philippe visited the woman in hospital, where she was being treated for shock.
“She was very courageous and perhaps, but this we will have to verify, she helped avoid more victims in the school,” Jambon said.
The minister said an investigation has been launched into the incident, including the circumstances surrounding his release from prison.
“It’s really an isolated case. He wasn’t part of a network, he didn’t receive instructions from anyone else, so there is no need to raise the terror threat alert level,” Jambon said, adding that investigators have no precise information that any other attacks might be likely.
Amid questions about how two officers could have been disarmed, Jambon praised the work of all involved, saying “the police did an extraordinary job.”
“They reacted well. All the systems, all the procedures worked. But if you are attacked from behind, as was the case with the two officers, you can’t do anything,” he said.
The police officers have been identified as Soraya Belkacemi, 44, and Lucile Garcia, 54. The passenger in the car was named as Cyril Vangriecken, 22, who was preparing to become a primary school teacher.
Belgian media reports named the man killed before Tuesday’s rampage as Michael Wilmet.
In Liege, flags were flying at half-staff on public buildings and people gathered to sign a book of condolences and lay flowers in memory of the victims. The prime minister joined others at the scene in a minute’s silence.
“Every morning I am scared that something like this will happen, and every day it happens closer to home,” Melissa Lamny told The Associated Press after wrapping flowers around a lamppost at the scene of the killings.