29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche was arrested Friday in Marseille in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun.
A Frenchman with suspected ties to Islamic radicals in Syria has been arrested over last week’s shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels that left four people dead, investigation sources told AFP on Sunday.
The suspect, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, was arrested Friday in the southern French city of Marseille in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun similar to the ones used in the attack on May 24, the sources said.
He has been detained on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in connection with a terrorist enterprise, a judicial source said.
The office of the Belgian federal prosecutor confirmed that a suspect was being held.
“I can confirm the arrest of the suspect,” a spokeswoman told AFP. A press conference will take place in Brussels at 3:00 pm (1300 GMT).
The shooting by a lone gunman killed three people outright – an Israeli couple and a Frenchwoman, while the fourth victim, a 24-year-old Belgian man, was left clinically dead.
Authorities had released chilling security camera footage of the gunman, wearing a cap and sunglasses, walking into the museum, removing an automatic rifle from a bag and shooting through a door before making an exit.
Customs officials detained Nemmouche at Marseille’s coach station on board a bus arriving from Amsterdam via Brussels.
According to sources close to the investigation, he was carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle and a gun with ammunition in his luggage, as well as a miniature video camera.
“These weapons were of the type used in Brussels,” said one source. Another source close to the investigation said that “many elements are consistent with the shooting in Brussels.”
Belgian media had reported that the assailant had used a camera to film the attack in the same way as Mohammed Merah, the Frenchman who shot dead several Jews in Toulouse two years ago.
The European Jewish Congress immediately drew a parallel between the events in Brussels and the shootings by Merah and called for greater security at Jewish institutions and tougher legislation for dealing with anti-Semitic crime.
Originally from Roubaix in northern France, Nemmouche is believed to have travelled to join Islamist fighters in Syria in 2013, and was known to the French domestic intelligence agency DGSI, the source said.
He is being questioned by the DGSI who can hold him for up to 96 hours, until Tuesday, or 144 hours, to Thursday, if investigators invoke an imminent terrorist threat.
Sources close to the investigation told AFP that during the first 24 hours of interrogation, Nemmouche remained silent.
The attack was the first such incident in more than 30 years in Belgium and has revived fears of a return of violent anti-Semitism to Europe.
Some 40,000 Jews live in Belgium, roughly half in Brussels and the remainder in the port city of Antwerp.
The profile of Nemmouche may revive a row in France over the monitoring of those who leave to country to fight in Syria.
France unveiled plans in April to try and stop the increasing numbers of young French Muslims joining to fight in the Syrian civil war and becoming radicalised before returning home.
President Francois Hollande said Sunday that the suspect was “arrested as soon as he set foot in France”.
“The government is mobilized to track down jihadists and prevent them from causing more harm,” he said, adding that the action plan to fight them will “be strengthened in the coming months.”
According to the latest figures, some 780 people have left France to fight with jihadists in Syria.
Previous arrest Tuesday
Belgian news media reported last Tuesday that the local police had arrested a suspect in the shooting incident, which had been labelled a “terrorist assassination.” It is not clear what connection, if any, the first suspect had to the second.
A man was seen shooting into the museum on security footage, and experts estimated that he appeared to be a professional killer.
The victims were Tel Aviv natives Miriam and Emmanuel Riva, a French woman who did volunteer work at the museum and a 24-year-old Belgian museum employee.
The bodies of the two Israelis were flown to Israel on Tuesday for burial. Hundreds of family members of friends accompanied the Rivas to the cemetery in Kiryat Shaul, Tel Aviv.
French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo visited the museum in Brussels on Tuesday, meeting with Jewish leaders and bowing their heads as a local rabbi recited a prayer, reports AFP.
An additional lead in the investigation was revealed on Tuesday, as Belgian authorities reportedly suspect the attack may have links to the Iranian-proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah. The date of the shooting, May 24, was linked to the date of the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Other theories have been presented, explaining the murder as a targeted killing of Israeli government agents, “simple” anti-Semitic violence, or an attack staged to awaken xenophobic elements within broader European society.