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Belgian report
by Euro Reporter
2016-04-28 10:50:17
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Belgium’s ‘fairy tale forest’ under threat from trampling tourists

Near Halle, Belgium, the Hallerbos’s bluebell bloom rivals the expanse of The Wizard of Oz’s poppy field (but it’s far less deadly). Blue blossoms carpet the forest floor for a few weeks every April, tempting a growing number of tourists and photographers to visit. The forest has a long history dating back to 686 A.D., but was nearly destroyed by the German army during the First World War. Most of its original trees were felled, and wild bluebells took over and spread across more than 300 acres. When the forest became the property of the Belgian government following the war, it was reforested and remains under the government’s care today.

belgium_400_01Since April 7, the management agency at Belgium’s Hallerbos national forest has been posting near daily updates heralding the beginnings of their legendary bluebell bloom. “It’s not the deep blue purple carpet yet, but the typical fairy tale starts spreading in the forest,” it posted on April 9. “There are more blooming bluebells every day. The flanks of the valleys as well are slowly changing from green to purple blue,” it relayed on April 13. Each post features a video to help tourists gauge when the blooms are hitting their peak, but the tone shifted on the next day. “Please stay on the paths at all times,” the April 14 post directed in bold after giving its update on beech leaves and the “purple blue flower carpet.”

And on April 17, the agency explained that there are “a lot of official paths along which this wonderful spring event can be enjoyed,” but a lot of visitors “walk on tree leaves or through the flowers, or to sit down in the flowers to take pictures. That is a big pity, because that is exactly what bluebells cannot handle. . . By trampling them, this tiny flower bulb is destroyed and there will not be a flower, only a bare patch next year.” And then in more bold: “Always stay on the official paths and never step on places where there are dry tree leaves, do not trample on the bluebells and their leaves.”

“This fairy tale forest is so much more beautiful without trampled flowers and barren patches,” the agency noted in its update on April 19. The sea of blue blooms makes the perfect backdrop for portraits. But as this year’s blossom season nears its end, the forest management agency says that all the photographers and visitors have created patches that have merged into paths through the blooms. These bald areas won’t create more flowers next year, they write. Only time will tell if the flower carpet can survive the invasion of iPhone-wielding tourists 100 years after it survived the Germans.


Belgium's lawmakers to probe failure to avert Brussels attacks

Belgian lawmakers vowed on Friday (April 21) to probe how Belgium failed to thwart the Brussels bombings months after attacks in Paris, as they visited a targeted metro station before it reopens next week. The Parliament's commission of inquiry visited the two scenes of last month's attacks - Maalbeek station and Brussels Airport - as part of a mission to shed light by year-end on the attacks in both capitals that were allegedly carried out by the same Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cell. The panel wants to find out "the way in which Belgium had prepared since the (November) Paris attacks to try to avoid the same tragedy", panel member Laurette Onkelex said. It must "shed light eventually on responsibilities, but also make recommendations and improve our security architecture", Ms Onkelex said.

Brussels public transport service spokesman Francoise Ledune told AFP that Maelbeek Station will resume service Monday from 6am until 10pm, like the rest of the network, which is still closing two hours earlier than previously. Maelbeek Station has been closed since Khalid El-Bakraoui detonated a bomb at 9.11am on March 22 that killed 16 people on a train, part of coordinated suicide attacks that hit the airport in the Zaventem neighbourhood just over an hour earlier. A total of 32 people died in the bombings and hundreds more were wounded. One of the station's eight tiled portraits by artist Benoit van Innis remains damaged and will be covered up. The same artist is now working on a project to commemorate the massacre that is due to be completed in June, Ms Ledune said. "In the meantime, we plan to set aside a remembrance wall where people can leave messages, words of hope," she added.

Officials quoted by the media said trains resumed service on Friday to Brussels Airport, which the authorities had halted because of the damaged terminal. Brussels Airport is set to resume full operations in June after it was closed to passengers for 12 days following the attack and then began gradually to restore service. The parliamentary commission met airport staff during their visit on Friday. "It was very moving. Some were in tears," centrist politician Georges Dallemagne said. The airport bombings were carried out by Khalid's brother Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui - the alleged bombmaker for the Nov 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people and wounded hundreds more.

Laachraoui has also been identified by several Frenchmen held hostage by ISIS in Syria as one of their prison guards, sources close to the investigation said. Police earlier this month arrested Mohamed Abrini, who confessed to being the "man in the hat" caught on video with the two airport bombers and who allegedly was preparing to detonate a third bomb before fleeing the scene. The authorities have also arrested Swedish national Osama Krayem and charged him in connection with both the Brussels and Paris attacks. He was filmed on CCTV talking to Khalid El Bakraoui minutes before the bomb went off. The government announced it would build a statue similar to a war memorial for the people who died in the Brussels attacks. It will also provide financial aid to victims and their families, including covering lifetime medical expenses for those injured.


Belgium Believes More IS Recruits to Return to Europe

Officials in Belgium say they have evidence that members of the Islamic State group are looking to return to Europe. The Associated Press reports that names are added almost daily to the list of the Islamic State attackers that killed 130 people in Paris and 32 in Brussels. The list of their supporters is also growing. Paul Van Tigchelt is the head of the Belgian government’s crisis centre. He said intelligence shows foreign terrorist fighters in Syria want to return “not just to Belgium, but to Europe to carry out an attack.”

Patrick Skinner, a former case officer for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, told the AP that the Brussels-Paris IS network is a “supercell. This is a highly functioning cell,” he said. “You’re looking at 50 people (in this group).” He added that an extremist cell usually has six to 10 members. Skinner is now with the Soufan Group, a security advisory business.

Two terror attacks have taken place in Europe during the past six months. Ten men were known to be involved in the Paris attacks on November 13, 2015. On March 22, three attackers carried out suicide bombings in Belgium. Two of the bombs exploded at a Brussels airport. The third bombing was at a train station. A fourth bomber, Mohamed Abrini, could not explode his bomb and was arrested in Brussels on April 8.


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