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France and Belgium increase cooperation in terror fight

February 2, 2016

The prime ministers of France and Belgium have met in Brussels to announce increased cooperation against terrorism. A proposed Passenger Name Record program would help track air travelers.

French and Belgian prime ministers, Manuel Valls and Charles Michel address the media during a joint press conference
Image: Reuters/F. Lenoir

The prime ministers of France and Belgium vowed to reinforce their cooperation in the fight against Islamic extremists.

The efforts are to include increased information-sharing on potential militants, and accelerated efforts to prevent document forgery.

Monday's meeting comes two-and-a-half months after Islamic extremists killed 130 people in a series of attacks across Paris. The assault strained relations between the two countries, with France angry over perceived intelligence failings by Belgium ahead of the attacks.

In addition to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (above left), and his Belgian counterpart Charles Michel (right), the prime ministers were joined by their respective justice ministers and security chiefs.

"The threat is at unprecedented levels," Valls told a joint press conference in Brussels after the meeting. "We are standing shoulder to shoulder together against this threat, to protect our citizens."

In addition to accelerating the exchange of information between police and justice officials, the two countries plan to use more biometric data to stem the flow of forged documents, and examine more closely encrypted messaging services.

The two also agreed to push for a European-wide Passenger Name Record (PNR) program that would track air travelers.

"This concerns Europe and all its member states," Valls said. "Everybody has to be engaged as they have a joint responsibility."

Belgium has come under international criticism for being something of a breeding ground for Islamic extremists. Per capita, more Belgian citizens have gone off to fight alongside Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq than any other European country.

Belgium isn't lawless

But Michel insisted "Belgium is not a lawless area" after reports found some of the Paris assailants and their accomplices came from the immigrant neighborhood of Molenbeek, in the Belgian capital.

Islamic State claims four of the nine terrorists were of Belgian origin, including one of the alleged organizers, Abdelhamid Abaaoud. He was killed in a raid by French police, just days after the Paris attacks.

Since the mid-November killings, police have arrested and charged 11 people in Belgium in connection with the attack. But one key suspect, Salah Abdeslam, and his accomplice Mohamed Abrini, who are both from Molenbeek, are still at large.

A French official said both sides will study "what actions can be taken" to fight terrorism at the European Union level and in the 26-nation Schengen zone, which includes most EU countries.

Michel praised the work between French and Belgian authorities.

"The cooperation between our services is excellent and is yielding results," Michel said recently.

bik/jr (Reuters, AFP)