Belgian justice minister under protection over kidnap plot

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgium's justice minister remained under protection Monday after four people suspected of taking part in a plot by alleged drugs criminals to kidnap him were arrested in the Netherlands.

Vincent Van Quickenborne said in a message on social media that he is “safe and in good hands" but will have to skip some planned activities in the coming days.

In a video message relayed by broadcaster RTBF, Van Quickenborne said he was informed by the country's federal prosecutor that he was the target of a kidnapping plot and that the suspects would be soon extradited to Belgium.

In his address, the minister mentioned the “drugs mafia."

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the threat against Van Quickenborne is “purely unacceptable."

“Let me be clear: we will not be intimidated by anyone," De Croo wrote on Twitter.

The federal prosecutor's office told The Associated Press on Monday that in addition to the four arrests, an automatic weapon and a bottle of gasoline had been found in a vehicle spotted in the city of Kortrijk. Van Quickenborne is the city's mayor.

With thousands of containers reaching Antwerp every day, the port city is one of Europe’s main ports of entry for cocaine and Belgium has become a major hub trafficking drugs into Europe.

Over the past two years, Belgian police have made several dozen arrests during operations of unprecedented scale.

More than 214 tons of cocaine were seized in Europe in 2020, a 6% increase from the previous year, and experts from the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction believe that amount could reach 300 tons in 2022.

The expansion of the cocaine market also saw a rise in violence and corruption in the EU, with fierce competition between traffickers leading to a rise in homicides and intimidation.

“Let me be clear: The people behind this are achieving the opposite of what they aim for. It strengthens me in the belief that we need to keep fighting," Van Quickenborne said. “The criminals feel trapped. That feeling is right. Because we will continue to fight organized crime, with more manpower and resources than before."

After a criminal drug trafficking network that relied on corrupt police officers to ship hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cocaine into Western Europe was dismantled in October 2020, federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said the operation showed how much drug trafficking is penetrating Belgian society.

“It’s very worrying to see how criminals can get involved in the highest spheres and try to make the legal world dirty with crime money,” Van Leeuw said at the time.

Samuel Petrequin, The Associated Press