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Brussels Jewish museum case given to prosecutor handling terrorism

An inquiry into a weekend attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels has been transferred to the federal prosecutor's office authorised to handle terrorist cases, officials said Monday.

BRUSSELS: An inquiry into a weekend attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels has been transferred to the federal prosecutor's office authorised to handle terrorist cases, officials said Monday.

Deputy public prosecutor Ine Van Wymersch told a news conference that "the file is transferred to the federal" level, but she refused to say whether or not it was being requalified as a terrorist act.

The decision to transfer the case was based on "the identity and nationality of the victims" -- an Israeli tourist couple, a French woman who did volunteer work at the museum and a 24-year-old Belgian museum employee.

The young Belgian was said by Jewish leaders to have died Sunday of injuries in the Saturday afternoon shooting but Van Wymersch said he was alive though "clinically dead."

She said the transfer of the case to the federal authorities was also based on police analysis of video footage showing the gunman to be "cold-blooded and quite determined in his behaviour".

Three security camera videos show the gunman, wearing a cap and sunglasses, and whose features are hard to make out, walk into the museum entrance, remove a Kalashnikov-style automatic rifle from a bag and than shoot through a door before making a hasty exit.

Van Wymersch refused to confirm or deny reports that a camera was strapped to one of the two bags he was carrying, enabling him to film the attack in the same way as did Mohammed Merah, the Frenchman who shot dead several Jews in Toulouse two years ago.

The Derniere Heure tabloid on Monday quoted a source close to the inquiry as saying: "We fear a new Merah."

"The priority of priorities is to find this man. He must be arrested and stopped," said Home Affairs Minister Joelle Milquet.

"We must reassure members of the Jewish community," she added, after ordering 24/7 police protection at all of the country's synagogues, schools and cultural centres.

Saturday's attack was the first in more than 30 years in Belgium and has revived fears of a return of violent anti-Semitism to Europe.

Pope Francis said in Israel on Sunday that he was deeply saddened by the attack. "My thoughts go out to those who lost their lives in the attack in Brussels."

The attack in the busy heart of Brussels, minutes away from a packed streetside jazz festival, came as the country headed into a crucial general election held alongside a vote for the European parliament.

"An election day is usually a celebration of democracy. Today it is clouded," said Belgium's Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. "It is on everyone's mind."

"In Belgium we are not accustomed to such acts of barbarity."

In Paris, where authorities said two Jews were assaulted late Saturday outside a synagogue in a Paris suburb, the government also ordered tighter security for Jewish institutions across France.

Some 40,000 Jews live in Belgium, roughly half in Brussels and the remainder in the port city of Antwerp.

Flowers and candles were laid in front of the museum as mourners trickled by to pay respects.

"It would be terribly dangerous to see a new surge of anti-Semitism, be it from the far right or from Muslim extremists," said 66-year-old Colette Gradom who trembled with emotion as she placed flowers at the scene.

"We feel that these actions are the outcome of a long period of hate speech against the Jews," said Rabbi Avi Tawil, who heads the European Jewish Community Centre.

There was no security at the museum leading up to the attack and Jewish community leaders said there had been no threats.

The Jewish Museum of Belgium is in the heart of the Sablon district which is home to top antique dealers. The area is a popular weekend haunt for shoppers and tourists.

In 1982, a gunman opened fire at the entrance of the synagogue in Brussels, wounding four people, two seriously.

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