Police find ammunition stash in hunt for far-right Belgian soldier

Police searching a nature reserve for a heavily armed Belgian soldier who has threatened to kill one of the country’s top scientists have found a backpack full of ammunition, raising fears the fugitive has even more weapons than suspected.

Cpl Jürgen Conings, 46, a specialist marksman, has not been seen since he disappeared on 17 Mei after taking four anti-tank missile launchers, a sub-machine gun and a bullet proof vest from his barracks.

He also left letters to his wife and the police in which he made threats to kill Marc Van Ranst, Belgium’s best-known virologist and adviser to the government on its tough Covid restrictions. Van Ranst and his family have been moved to a safe house.

The search for Conings, who has close links to the Flemish extreme right, has been focusing on the Dilserbos woods and a nearby national park close to a Center Parcs resort in the Dilsen-Stokkem municipality near the Belgian-Dutch border, where Conings’ Audi Q5 car was discovered shortly after he disappeared.

Prosecutors believe that they have discovered a backpack belonged to Conings lying by a tree less than a mile from where the car had been left. It was said to be full of boxes of ammunition for a P90 machine gun and a 5.7 pistol.

It also contained a belt of cartridges for a shotgun and some grenades, as well cookies, dry food, water bottles, games and a topographic map.

The find indicates that Conings may have a shotgun as well as the two other weapons believed to still be in his possession. The stolen missile launchers were recovered earlier from his abandoned car, which had been booby-trapped with a grenade.

“We are 80 aan 90% sure that the backpack belongs to him, given the many things that we can link to him,” said public prosecutor Eric Van Duyse. “The backpack seems to have been there for several days or weeks.”

With every day that passes without Conings being apprehended, questions are being asked about the competence of the Belgian police and its armed forces but also how it was that such a man was able to walk out of barracks with such an arsenal of weapons.

Conings had been disciplined before for threats on social media. He was a lapsed member of Vlaams Belang, (Flemish Interest), an anti-Muslim separatist party and a friend of Thomas Boutens, also an ex-soldier, who was convicted in 2014 for being the leader of the neo-Nazi group Blood, Soil, Honour and Faith.

Conings’ letters had made reference to “the regime”. He wrote that he could not “live with the lies of people who decide how we should live”. Ten people on a potential list of targets have been provided with extra security, as have mosques in the man’s home province of Limburg.

The government’s embarrassment at failing to find the missing soldier has been exacerbated by manifestations of support for him. Marches involving more than a hundred people bearing banners describing him as a hero have been held in the area near where he is believed to be hiding. A Facebook group called “As 1 Behind Jürgen” attracted more than 40,000 members before it was removed from the platform.

Police are open-minded as to whether Conings is still alive. Dogs trained to sniff out corpses have been used in the most recent searches, which were continuing through the week.

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