After 35-Day Manhunt for Far-Right Soldier, Body Is Found in Belgium

BRUSSELS — A 35-day manhunt in Belgium that involved helicopters, armored vehicles, 400 soldiers and police officers, as well as reinfor...

BRUSSELS — A 35-day manhunt in Belgium that involved helicopters, armored vehicles, 400 soldiers and police officers, as well as reinforcements from Germany and the Netherlands, culminated on Sunday in the discovery of a body believed to be that of a missing soldier with links to the far right.

The body was found in a forest where the soldier, Jürgen Conings, 46, disappeared more than a month ago after threatening the government and virologists responsible for the country’s response to the coronavirus, the federal prosecutor said. At the time, the soldier was armed with four rocket launchers, a submachine gun and a semiautomatic pistol that he had taken from an army depot.

The prosecutor said an initial investigation indicated the body belonged to Mr. Conings, a shooting instructor who in February was classified as a high-level threat to national security. He appears to have shot himself, the authorities said.

In a letter to his girlfriend around the time he disappeared on May 17, Mr. Conings wrote that he would not give up without a fight.

“The so-called political elite and now virologists decide how you and I should live,” he wrote. The virologists and the government “have taken everything away from us,” he said. “I don’t care if I die or not.”

The soldier’s disappearance came at a time of frustration in Belgium over pandemic restrictions and the economic damage from them. The country has had a relatively large number of Covid-19 deaths per capita and has imposed one of the longest lockdowns in Europe.

The far-right camp in Belgium has used the pandemic to inflame public anger at the government. Reports from state security agencies warned as early as last spring of “the emergence of various right-wing extremist individuals and groups spreading conspiracy theories” about Covid-19.

Credit…Belgian Federal Police

Mr. Conings’s links to far-right extremists were under investigation by the federal prosecutor.

Before the soldier disappeared, he went to the house of Marc Van Ranst, a top virologist active in Belgium’s Covid-19 response, and waited outside for him to return home from work. But Dr. Van Ranst had taken his first afternoon off in 16 months and was already home.

It was not the first time Mr. Conings had threatened Dr. Van Ranst, a well-known figure who was the government’s commissioner for the SARS epidemic in 2009. Dr. Van Ranst had also drawn the ire of the far right for speaking out against racism and xenophobia.

After the soldier went missing, the Belgian authorities placed Dr. Van Ranst and his family in a safe location. When the body was discovered on Sunday, Dr. Van Ranst, who was celebrating his 56th birthday in hiding, told the local news media that he hoped to “get back to normal life soon.”

Although he said he had little sympathy for Mr. Conings, he expressed condolences to the soldier’s family.

Mr. Conings joined the military at 18. But after making racist comments and threats, he lost his security clearance last year and was demoted, the Belgian authorities said.

Even though the security services listed the soldier as a “potentially dangerous extremist,” Belgium’s defense minister said in a parliamentary hearing that Mr. Conings had an access card to an ammunition depot after his demotion.

Belgium is divided linguistically and politically between the wealthy Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia in the south. Each has its own government and political landscape, and centrist politicians face pressure from the far left and the far right.

The challenge is particularly prominent in Flanders, which is home to Mr. Conings and Dr. Van Ranst as well as two right-wing parties. One of them, Vlaams Belang, a Flemish ultranationalist, anti-immigration party, has gained significant support in recent years.

After Mr. Conings’s disappearance, 45,000 people joined a Facebook group called “All united behind Jürgen,” before Facebook blocked it. On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app, about 3,300 users have been exchanging messages of solidarity in a group called “As one man behind Jürgen!”

But when the Facebook group called for demonstrations in support of Mr. Conings near his hometown a week later, only about 350 people turned up.

The long, unsuccessful manhunt had become the source of bitter jokes in a country roughly the size of the state of Maryland. Last week, the police discovered a backpack containing ammunition they believe belonged to Mr. Conings.

“That place had been searched before, but the backpack was possibly overlooked then,” the federal prosecutor’s office told local media.

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Newsrust - US Top News: After 35-Day Manhunt for Far-Right Soldier, Body Is Found in Belgium
After 35-Day Manhunt for Far-Right Soldier, Body Is Found in Belgium
Newsrust - US Top News
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