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Belgian gunman targets shoppers


- A man armed with grenades and an assault rifle attacked holiday shoppers yesterday at a central square in the Belgian city of Liege. Five people died, including the attacker, and 122 others were wounded, officials said.

It was not immediately clear what motivated the attack in the busy Place Saint-Lambert square, the central entry point to downtown shopping streets in the city in eastern Belgium. The attack prompted hundreds of shoppers to stampede down old city streets, fleeing explosions and bullets.

Belgian officials identified the attacker as Nordine Amrani, 33, a Liege resident who they said had done jail time for offenses involving guns, drugs and sexual abuse. He was among the dead, but Liege Prosecutor Danielle Reynders told reporters that it was unclear if he committed suicide or died by accident. He did not die at the hands of police, she said.

The other dead were two teenage male students, aged 15 and 17, and a 75-year-old woman, while an 18-month-old toddler died last night in the hospital, Liege police said.

Reynders said that Amrani had been summoned for police questioning yesterday but the reason for that was not clear. He still had a number of grenades with him when he died, she said.

Officials said that Amrani left his home in Liege with a backpack, armed with hand grenades, a pistol and an FAL assault rifle. He walked alone to the central square, then got onto a platform that gave him an ideal view of the square below, which was bedecked with a huge Christmas tree and crowded with shoppers.

From there, Amrani lobbed three hand grenades toward a nearby bus shelter, which serves 1,800 buses a day, then opened fire on the crowd. The explosions sent shards of glass from the bus shelter across a wide area.

As soon as the shooting began, hundreds fled the square as well as a nearby Christmas market. Police closed off the area but found no accomplices, and calm returned a few hours after.

Interior Ministry official Peter Mertens said that the attack did not involve terrorism, but did not explain why he thought that.

In the early 1980s, a group of heavily armed gunmen dubbed the "mad killers of Brabant" terrorized supermarkets and other stores in the Brabant region around Brussels. The gunmen fired apparently at random at bystanders during a series of robberies between 1982 and 1985, killing 28 people in all.

The scale of the bloodshed, the military weapons used, and the fact that the robberies often involved relatively small amounts of money sparked suspicions that right-wing terrorists were behind the attacks. But there were no claims of responsibility and the identity of the attackers remains unknown to this day.