Hundreds of special forces hunt heavily armed Belgian soldier who vowed to fight lockdowns

Hundreds of special forces soldiers have today joined the hunt for a heavily armed Belgian soldier who is on the run after threatening the country’s top virologist and vowing to fight to the death against lockdown restrictions.

Trained sniper Corporal Jurgen Conings, 46, disappeared on Monday after threatening Marc Van Ranst, a leading academic who has advised the Belgian government on the coronavirus crisis and is vocal on social media.

The soldier is thought to be on the run in the Hoge Kempen forest after stealing four rocket launchers, a machine gun and a pistol from one of the barracks where he worked.

He left several notes, writing in one to his family that he ‘could no longer live in a society where politicians and virologists have taken everything away from us.’

His girlfriend Gwendy, 46, has told local media that all she wants is ‘her tough, sweet teddy bear’ back, describing Conings as a ‘loving father’ to his two children and her daughter.

Conings – who has served in Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan – has been dubbed ‘Rambo’ and warned that he ‘would join the resistance and would not surrender’ in a final message. 

But Gwendy said today she doesn’t recognise Conings as a Rambo-like character.

‘That’s not my Jurgen,’ she told Algemeen Dagblad. ‘I don’t know him like that at all. As far as I know, he had no extremist thoughts. And as far as I know he never threatened Marc Van Ranst.’

Some 400 Belgian soldiers and police officers with assault rifles and armoured vehicles have been deployed to the Hoge Kempen forest in the far northeast of the country close to the Dutch border.

German special forces units have also been sent to assist, while the Netherlands has troops on standby in case Conings crosses the border. 

Shots were heard last night as teams of heavily-armed officers entered the park, with armoured cars and helicopters on standby.  

This followed the discovery nearby on Tuesday night of Conings’ vehicle. The four missile launchers were inside, along with some munitions but Coning is also armed with an FN P90 machine gun and a handgun.

Van Rast, who has proposed many of the social distancing measures adopted in Belgium, spoke out yesterday from a secure location.  

He said that ‘being against COVID measures and COVID vaccines all too often coincides with aggression of violence and raw racism. 

‘Let one thing be clear: such threats do not make the slightest impression on me,’ he added.

Hundreds of special forces soldiers have today joined the hunt for a heavily armed Belgian soldier who is on the run after threatening the country's top virologist and vowing to fight to the death against lockdown restrictions.

Hundreds of special forces soldiers have today joined the hunt for a heavily armed Belgian soldier who is on the run after threatening the country's top virologist and vowing to fight to the death against lockdown restrictions.

Trained sniper Corporal Jurgen Conings, 46, disappeared on Monday after threatening Marc Van Ranst, a leading academic who has advised the Belgian government on the coronavirus crisis and is vocal on social media

Trained sniper Corporal Jurgen Conings, 46, disappeared on Monday after threatening Marc Van Ranst, a leading academic who has advised the Belgian government on the coronavirus crisis and is vocal on social media

Hundreds of special forces soldiers have today joined the hunt for a heavily armed Belgian soldier who is on the run after threatening the country’s top virologist and vowing to fight to the death against lockdown restrictions. Trained sniper Corporal Jurgen Conings, 46, disappeared on Monday after threatening Marc Van Ranst, a leading academic who has advised the Belgian government on the coronavirus crisis and is vocal on social media

Belgian soldiers with assault rifles in Limburg today as they join the manhunt for Conings in northeast Belgium close to the Dutch border

Belgian soldiers with assault rifles in Limburg today as they join the manhunt for Conings in northeast Belgium close to the Dutch border

Belgian soldiers with assault rifles in Limburg today as they join the manhunt for Conings in northeast Belgium close to the Dutch border

Belgian soldiers armed with assault rifles patrol at an entrance of the Hoge Kempen National Park in northern Belgium amid a manhunt in the massive forest

Belgian soldiers armed with assault rifles patrol at an entrance of the Hoge Kempen National Park in northern Belgium amid a manhunt in the massive forest

Belgian soldiers armed with assault rifles patrol at an entrance of the Hoge Kempen National Park in northern Belgium amid a manhunt in the massive forest

A Belgian soldier with an assault rifle patrols outside the entrance to the National Park as squadrons arrive to help hunt down Conings

A Belgian soldier with an assault rifle patrols outside the entrance to the National Park as squadrons arrive to help hunt down Conings

A Belgian soldier with an assault rifle patrols outside the entrance to the National Park as squadrons arrive to help hunt down Conings 

Security forces join the hunt for Conings on Thursday in the Hoge Kempen forest

Security forces join the hunt for Conings on Thursday in the Hoge Kempen forest

Security forces join the hunt for Conings on Thursday in the Hoge Kempen forest

Police officers armed with MP5 submachine guns at the densely wooded area in the far northeast of Belgium on Thursday

Police officers armed with MP5 submachine guns at the densely wooded area in the far northeast of Belgium on Thursday

Police officers armed with MP5 submachine guns at the densely wooded area in the far northeast of Belgium on Thursday

Soldiers man an armoured infantry fighting vehicle as they join the hunt for Conings who is believed to be armed to the teeth

Soldiers man an armoured infantry fighting vehicle as they join the hunt for Conings who is believed to be armed to the teeth

Soldiers man an armoured infantry fighting vehicle as they join the hunt for Conings who is believed to be armed to the teeth

Timeline: Belgium’s coronavirus response

February 4, 2020: First case detected

March 11: First reported death

March 18: First nationwide lockdown begins  

May 4: Lockdown measures begin easing 

May 11: Shops open to the public  

June 8: Cafes and restaurants allowed to open

July 25: Face coverings made compulsory in public indoor spaces and busy outdoor spaces

July 28: Curfew announced for Antwerp province

November 2: Second nationwide lockdown begins

May 8, 2021: Lockdown measures begin easing

 

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The federal public prosecutor said ‘there are strong indications that [he] might be in that park’.  

The park was locked down on Wednesday and a number of mosques in the Limburg province remained closed on Thursday as a precaution. 

Conings is armed with a handgun and an FN P90 semi-automatic submachine gun, which can pierce bullet proof vests, The Times reported. 

The soldier has combat experience as a sniper and has been described as ‘an acute threat,’ with the public warned not to approach him. He is also known to have led hostile environment training courses. 

Conings is reported to have spent much of Tuesday scoping out targets before realising he was being pursued.  

On his Twitter profile he describes himself as a ‘Belgian Air Force soldier who likes fitness, bodybuilding and boxing’, already featured on a list of extremists monitored by Belgium’s anti-terrorist agency.

He was one of around 30 Belgian military personnel with known extremist sympathies, officials said, but he remained on active duty, training Belgian troops ahead of deployment on overseas missions.

Army sources told Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws that Conings was ‘an extreme right-wing weapons nut who does not shy away from violence,’ and ‘an antivaxer who hates Van Ranst.’

Flemish outlet De Morgen said Conings’ Facebook profile mentions the Siegrune, the symbol used by the SS during World War II.

Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told Flemish broadcaster VTM it was ‘unacceptable’ that the fugitive had been allowed to access the weapons, and Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder said an inquiry would be launched.

‘The real question is of course: how is this possible?’ De Croo.

‘Someone who has already made threats in the past – that this man within defence has access to weapons and can even take those weapons with him.

‘It is unacceptable.’

Conings is armed with a handgun and an FN P90 semi-automatic submachine gun, which can pierce bullet proof vests

Conings is armed with a handgun and an FN P90 semi-automatic submachine gun, which can pierce bullet proof vests

Conings is armed with a handgun and an FN P90 semi-automatic submachine gun, which can pierce bullet proof vests

Late on Wednesday, the federal prosecutor's office said some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border

Late on Wednesday, the federal prosecutor's office said some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border

Late on Wednesday, the federal prosecutor’s office said some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border

Some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border, with 50 more arriving on Thursday. 'The search continued throughout the night,' federal prosecutor spokesman Eric Van Duyse told AFP news agency

Some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border, with 50 more arriving on Thursday. 'The search continued throughout the night,' federal prosecutor spokesman Eric Van Duyse told AFP news agency

Some 250 police officers and soldiers were deployed to the Hoge Kempen National Park in the northeast near the Dutch border, with 50 more arriving on Thursday. ‘The search continued throughout the night,’ federal prosecutor spokesman Eric Van Duyse told AFP news agency

Armoured vehicles transported soldiers to the Hoge Kempen National Park, where Conings is believed to be hiding out

Armoured vehicles transported soldiers to the Hoge Kempen National Park, where Conings is believed to be hiding out

Armoured vehicles transported soldiers to the Hoge Kempen National Park, where Conings is believed to be hiding out

He is 6ft 2in, muscular and was said to be a wearing a dark Timberland T-shirt at the time of his disappearance. Pictured: Soldiers patrol the park on Thursday

He is 6ft 2in, muscular and was said to be a wearing a dark Timberland T-shirt at the time of his disappearance. Pictured: Soldiers patrol the park on Thursday

He is 6ft 2in, muscular and was said to be a wearing a dark Timberland T-shirt at the time of his disappearance. Pictured: Soldiers patrol the park on Thursday

Security forces carry out operations to locate Conings, who was found to be missing after his girlfriend discovered several letters from him and alerted authorities

Security forces carry out operations to locate Conings, who was found to be missing after his girlfriend discovered several letters from him and alerted authorities

Security forces carry out operations to locate Conings, who was found to be missing after his girlfriend discovered several letters from him and alerted authorities

Shots were reportedly heard as teams of heavily-armed officers entered the park, with armoured vehicles and helicopters on standby

Shots were reportedly heard as teams of heavily-armed officers entered the park, with armoured vehicles and helicopters on standby

Shots were reportedly heard as teams of heavily-armed officers entered the park, with armoured vehicles and helicopters on standby

A spokesman for the prosecutors, Eric Van Duyse, told AFP news agency that Conings was 'well trained but seems to have ideas associated with the extreme right'

A spokesman for the prosecutors, Eric Van Duyse, told AFP news agency that Conings was 'well trained but seems to have ideas associated with the extreme right'

A spokesman for the prosecutors, Eric Van Duyse, told AFP news agency that Conings was ‘well trained but seems to have ideas associated with the extreme right’

The federal public prosecutor, who has because of the risk of a terror offence being committed, said 'there are strong indications that [he] might be in that park'

The federal public prosecutor, who has because of the risk of a terror offence being committed, said 'there are strong indications that [he] might be in that park'

 The federal public prosecutor, who has because of the risk of a terror offence being committed, said ‘there are strong indications that [he] might be in that park’

The soldier has combat experience as a sniper and has been described as 'an acute threat,' with the public warned not to approach him

The soldier has combat experience as a sniper and has been described as 'an acute threat,' with the public warned not to approach him

The soldier has combat experience as a sniper and has been described as ‘an acute threat,’ with the public warned not to approach him

Conings’ police wanted notice shows a thick set man with a shaved head. In his Twitter profile, he appears shirtless, revealing his muscular, tattooed torso.

He is 6ft 2in, muscular and was said to be a wearing a dark Timberland T-shirt at the time of his disappearance.

Van Duyse, told AFP that Conings was ‘well trained but seems to have ideas associated with the extreme right’.

He had disappeared with weapons, he said, and had left behind a letter containing ‘worrying elements’ including threats to the state and public figures. 

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told VRT television: ‘There are signs that he is violent and, over the course of the past 24 hours, evidence has emerged that shows this man presents an acute threat.’

Dutch police said they were monitoring the situation but had no reason to believe Conings had crossed the border.

Mosques in Dilsen, Bilzen, Lommel and Hulst remained closed on Thursday over fears they could become targets. Local media reported that several had been visited by police and advised of the threat. Some mosques have remained open, albeit with tightened security.

Among the people Conings has threatened is Van Ranst. The leading virologist is an active social media user and his views have made him a target of conspiracy theorists, Covid-sceptics and with the Flemish far-right.

He addresses political and societal issues and faced heavy criticism from the Jewish community in Belgium and elsewhere for accusing Israel of committing a ‘Gazacaust’ during the 2014 Gaza War. 

In 2018, he got into a prolonged Twitter feud with Flemish nationalist MP Theo Francken, who nicknamed Van Ranst ‘Dr Hate’.

In an interview with AFP in September, Van Ranst said he had fallen foul of the nationalists and received death threats after speaking out against racism and xenophobia.

‘I couldn’t stay silent about that and the right-wing parties hate me,’ he said.

Already living under police protection, he and his family have been moved to a place of safety.

Dutch police said they were monitoring the situation but had no reason to believe Conings had crossed the border. Pictured: Belgian police on Wednesday

Dutch police said they were monitoring the situation but had no reason to believe Conings had crossed the border. Pictured: Belgian police on Wednesday

Dutch police said they were monitoring the situation but had no reason to believe Conings had crossed the border. Pictured: Belgian police on Wednesday

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told VRT television: 'There are signs that he is violent and, over the course of the past 24 hours, evidence has emerged that shows this man presents an acute threat'

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told VRT television: 'There are signs that he is violent and, over the course of the past 24 hours, evidence has emerged that shows this man presents an acute threat'

Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne told VRT television: ‘There are signs that he is violent and, over the course of the past 24 hours, evidence has emerged that shows this man presents an acute threat’

Earlier this month, Conings threatened several people, including Marc Van Ranst (pictured), one of the best-known virologists working on containing the Covid-19 pandemic [File photo]

Earlier this month, Conings threatened several people, including Marc Van Ranst (pictured), one of the best-known virologists working on containing the Covid-19 pandemic [File photo]

Earlier this month, Conings threatened several people, including Marc Van Ranst (pictured), one of the best-known virologists working on containing the Covid-19 pandemic [File photo]

Soldiers are scouring the national park in the hope of finding Conings who is considered to be armed and extremely dangerous

Soldiers are scouring the national park in the hope of finding Conings who is considered to be armed and extremely dangerous

Soldiers are scouring the national park in the hope of finding Conings who is considered to be armed and extremely dangerous

In a Twitter message early on Wednesday, Van Ranst said that ‘being against COVID measures and COVID vaccines all too often coincides with aggression of violence and raw racism. 

‘Let one thing be clear: such threats do not make the slightest impression on me,’ he added.

In its annual report last year, Belgium’s civilian security and intelligence agency expressed concern about a growing right-wing extremist threat.

In particular, it noted that these groups are increasingly seeking weapons in order to prepare for violent action.

But it added: ‘The main threat comes from those individuals known as ‘lone actors’, who become radicalised and plan violent actions on their own.’

Questions are now being raised about how Conings could be allowed to continue serving in the army while being listed as a potentially violent extremist by the military intelligence service.

A potentially violent extremist is categorised as being ‘a person with extremist views who has an intention to use violence, but has not yet taken concrete steps to do so.’ 

Such a categorisation should have prevented Conings from handling weapons, even in the army, according to The Brussels Times.

The outlet reported that authorities will carry out an investigation into how he was able to obtain the heavy weaponry from the barracks. 

VRT reported that Conings was authorised to be in charge of weapons depots as both Leopoldsburg and Peutie barracks, where he worked.

However, the authorisation expired at the beginning of this year and was not renewed.  

A spokesman for ACMP, a military union told De Morgen: ‘Belonging to a certain organisation or having a certain conviction is not punishable a priori.

‘You can adhere to an extreme right-wing ideology, but it is only when you commit criminal offences or compromise the name and reputation of the army by making certain statements that you expose yourself to prosecution under military law or criminal law,’ Yves Huwart told the paper.

Military forces arrive with an army armoured truck at the forest of Hoge Kempen National Park late on Wednesday

Military forces arrive with an army armoured truck at the forest of Hoge Kempen National Park late on Wednesday

Military forces arrive with an army armoured truck at the forest of Hoge Kempen National Park late on Wednesday 

Questions are now being raised about how Conings could be allowed to continue serving in the army while being listed as a potentially violent extremist by the military intelligence service

Questions are now being raised about how Conings could be allowed to continue serving in the army while being listed as a potentially violent extremist by the military intelligence service

Questions are now being raised about how Conings could be allowed to continue serving in the army while being listed as a potentially violent extremist by the military intelligence service

VRT reported that Conings was authorised to be in charge of weapons depots as both Leopoldsburg and Peutie barracks, where he worked. However, the authorisation expired at the beginning of this year and was not renewed

VRT reported that Conings was authorised to be in charge of weapons depots as both Leopoldsburg and Peutie barracks, where he worked. However, the authorisation expired at the beginning of this year and was not renewed

VRT reported that Conings was authorised to be in charge of weapons depots as both Leopoldsburg and Peutie barracks, where he worked. However, the authorisation expired at the beginning of this year and was not renewed

In its annual report last year, Belgium's civilian security and intelligence agency expressed concern about a growing right-wing extremist threat. In particular, it noted that these groups are increasingly seeking weapons in order to prepare for violent action

In its annual report last year, Belgium's civilian security and intelligence agency expressed concern about a growing right-wing extremist threat. In particular, it noted that these groups are increasingly seeking weapons in order to prepare for violent action

In its annual report last year, Belgium’s civilian security and intelligence agency expressed concern about a growing right-wing extremist threat. In particular, it noted that these groups are increasingly seeking weapons in order to prepare for violent action

An intelligence report expressed concern about the growing threat of right-wing extremism, noting: 'The main threat comes from those individuals known as 'lone actors', who become radicalised and plan violent actions on their own'

An intelligence report expressed concern about the growing threat of right-wing extremism, noting: 'The main threat comes from those individuals known as 'lone actors', who become radicalised and plan violent actions on their own'

An intelligence report expressed concern about the growing threat of right-wing extremism, noting: ‘The main threat comes from those individuals known as ‘lone actors’, who become radicalised and plan violent actions on their own’

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