Belgian manhunt for armed soldier who threatened virologist

By Daniel Boffey in Brussels
Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst.
Marc Van Ranst, a high-profile virologist and government adviser, has been moved with his family to a safe house for his protection. Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters

Police in Belgium are searching for a heavily armed soldier with links to the extreme right who has made threats against a high-profile virologist who backed the country’s Covid lockdowns.

Jurgen Conings, 46, has been missing since Monday after taking from his barracks at four rocket launchers, a submachine gun, a pistol and a bulletproof vest.

Special forces and police were searching Dilserbos forest, near Dilsen in Limburg, on Tuesday night after the man’s Audi car was found, but the fugitive is yet to be apprehended. The federal prosecutor’s office said that “the most worrying weapons were found in the car”.

Conings is believed to still be armed with a submachine gun and a 5.7mm pistol. Searches were continuing on Wednesday in the Hoge Kempen national park.

Conings is 6ft 2in, muscular, bald and has several tattoos, including on his upper arms At the time of his disappearance, he was said to be a wearing a dark Timberland T-shirt.

Conings’ girlfriend had alerted the army after reportedly discovering two suicide letters to friends and family at his home in Lanklaar in which he said he no longer wished to live “in such a society ruled by politicians and virologists”.

A corporal who specialises in firearms training, he wrote that he would “join the resistance and would not surrender without a fight”, according to the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. He has known links to figures in the extreme right of Belgian politics, and was on the radar of anti-terrorist authorities.

“It is feared that he wants to carry out a violent action, against himself or against other persons, but the correct possible targets are still unclear,” the public prosecutor Eric Van Duyse said.

Special forces were searching Dilserbos forest with the aid of a helicopter and local residents were asked to stay indoors for their own safety. The military army base of Kleine Brogel was also under extra surveillance.

Conings is said to have specifically threatened Marc Van Ranst, a virologist and government adviser who regularly appears in the media. He tweeted earlier this year: “Who has Van Ranst’s address?”

Conings was subsequently disciplined and confined to a desk job but was recently allowed to resume his usual duties. The soldier has been in the army since 1992 and has undertaken tours in Afghanistan.

Van Ranst, who has been moved with his family to a safe house, told local media: “Let one thing be clear: such threats do not make the slightest impression on me.”

He said there was evidence, however, that Conings had been surveilling his home. “There were indications that this guy had come to scout the town where I live,” Van Ranst said. “He spent a number of hours there.”

Questions are now being asked as to why Conings was allowed to serve given his open support for the extreme right and the nature of his social media posts. He is understood to have a relationship with Thomas Boutens, an ex-soldier, who was convicted in 2014 as leader of the neo-Nazi group Blood, Soil, Honour and Faith in Flanders.

Boutens tweeted on Tuesday: “The thoughts are with an old colleague’s brother in arms. J, wherever you are, you are not alone, even if it is in a world that spits on the faithful.”


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