A police manhunt for a Belgian solder with suspected far-right sympathies who went missing after allegedly stealing weapons and ammunition has raised new questions about the role of extremist politics in Europe’s militaries.
Jurgen Conings, 46, a member of the Belgian Army, left his home in northeast Belgium near the Dutch border on May 17. His car was found a day later containing four antitank rocket launchers and ammunition, prosecutors said in a statement, adding that he most likely “still has weapons in his possession.”
He has “possibly aggressive intentions” toward Belgian people or institutions, the statement said.
A warrant for his arrest has been issued, and both police and the military have searched 30,000 acres of forest in a national park, without luck.
Some 100 army reservists and six armored vehicles were sent to join the search, prosecutors said. Gunshots were heard in the area on Wednesday, “but they could not be further identified.”
Reuters reported that Conings had threatened Marc Van Ranst, one of Belgium’s leading virologists and a government adviser.
Van Ranst, who was not immediately available for comment, has said on Twitter that he has received numerous threats on social media since the start of the pandemic. He and his family are now in protective custody of the state — what Van Ranst referred to on Twitter as a “safe house.”
Van Ranst also said that threats against his life had been made on the Virus Waanzig website, meaning “virus madness,” which has campaigned against lockdown restrictions. On May 10 the site’s chairman Michael Verstraeten confirmed threats of violence against Van Ranst and asked users: “Would you be so kind as not to make death threats on this website?”
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Van Ranst, a familiar face on news TV throughout the pandemic, was first given police protection in July 2020, Reuters reported.
“Being against health measures and vaccines and against the coronavirus too often coincides with a glorification of violence and brutal racism. … Let one thing be clear: such threats do not impress me,” he wrote on Twitter last week.
The case has gripped Belgium and posed wider questions about how the country deals with malcontent in its armed forces. Conings was on a potential terror threat list compiled by Belgium’s terror threat monitor, the OCAM, according to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.
“The question is how someone active in the defense service — who is on a security list as a person with extremist ideas and who has already made threats — gained access to weapons and was able to take them away,” De Croo told the Belga news agency.
The case highlights the challenge faced by Western democracies in identifying and stopping terror plots inspired by right-wing ideology that emerge from security services.
The German domestic intelligence service said last year that it had recorded 1,400 incidents of suspected far-right extremism among police, the armed forces and security services in the three years to March 2020.
In April, the first British police officer to be convicted of being a member of a banned far-right terrorist group was sentenced to four years and four months in prison.