Several hundred right-wing protesters hijacked a memorial event on Sunday for victims of the recent terror attacks in Brussels by chanting xenophobic slogans, making Nazi salutes, and accosting Muslim women in the crowd.
Belgian riot police clashed with members of the pro-White group, many of whom were clad in black with masks and hoods. Police used water cannons to disperse the unruly mob, which Belgian broadcaster RTBF estimated at 500-1,000-strong. At least 10 people were arrested.
Sunday's event, held in Brussels' Place de la Bourse, was originally intended for people to lay flowers, light candles, and remember the 28 people who were killed in bombings on March 22 at the Brussels airport and on a metro train in the city center. Hundreds of others were injured in the attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State.
RTBF reported that the right-wing group "commandeered" the vigil, trampled on flowers that had been laid down, and shouted "It's because of you," a chant that blamed the attacks on the influx of refugees to Belgium and other countries in Europe. One banner carried by the protesters read "United against Islamic State."
Prime Minister Charles Michel condemned the protesters. "It is highly inappropriate that protesters have disrupted the peaceful at the Bourse [stock exchange]," Michel said, according to Belga News Agency.
Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of Brussels, said he was was "appalled" that "such scoundrels have come to provoke residents at the site of their memorial." He said many of the protesters were outsiders who came from Antwerp and cities other than the Belgian capital.
The prominence and popularity of far-right groups in Belgium and Europe has surged in the wake of the terror attacks last November in Paris. Many of the groups have peddled the narrative that militants are posing as asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn countries in the Middle East. However, while several suspects in the Paris and Brussels attacks were known to have traveled to Syria, all of the perpetrators identified thus far have either been French or Belgian nationals. A Syrian passport was also found near one of the Paris suicide bombers, but authorities suspect it was either stolen or forged.
Brussels residents had originally planned a "March Against Fear" for Sunday, but it was cancelled on Saturday at the request of Belgium's interior minister, who said police and other security forces were already stretched thin after the attacks on Tuesday. "We understand fully the emotions," Interior Minister Jan Jambon told reporters on Saturday. "We understand that everyone wants to express these feelings."
Belgian police, meanwhile, carried out 13 more raids on Sunday and took more people into custody for questioning as part of the ongoing investigation.
Far-right support surges in Belgium as anger grows over Brussels terror attacks
Support for the notorious right-wing Flemish populist party Vlaams Belang has grown substantially in aftermath of the atrocities in the Belgian capital.
The party’s number of likes on Facebook has jumped by more than three thousand percent compared to one week ago, according to data published by Facebook.
Such a massive surge in popularity is particularly significant in Belgium, which has only 11 million inhabitants.
Vlaams Belang, whose main goal is independence for Flanders - Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern region - also has a tough stance on immigration and the deportation of non-nationals.
A swing towards far-right parties was also seen in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November last year, with the Front National (FN) gaining nearly seven million votes in recent regional elections.
Tough words about clamping down on extremism and immigration from the leader of Vlaams Belang, Tom Van Grieken, are likely to strike a chord with many conservative voters in an increasingly anxious public as emotions remain raw.
Mr Grieken said his party’s Facebook page gained 10,000 new likes overnight after the Brussels attacks and some of his posts warning of the dangers of radical Islam had been shared more than four million times.
The 29-year-old, who attended a march organised by the anti-Islam and anti-immigrant group Pegida in January, said “solidarity alone is not enough” and called for a “three-tier system of concrete measurers” to clap down on terrorism.
Like FN leader Marine Le Pen, Mr Grieken campaigns on an anti-immigration platform and has called for “a watertight border policy” as well as the “preventative detention of known Islamic extremists”.
Mr Grieken has also said Belgium’s ‘Law-Lejeune’, which allows the early release of inmates for good behaviour, should be dissolved immediately.
His comments have won the right-wing leader a massive surge in support after the Brussels attacks, with his Facebook page’s number of likes jumping by 916 per cent.
Vlaams Belang was created in 2004 after its predecessor Vlaams Blok lost state funding and access to television after Belgium’s highest court ruled it was guilty of violating anti-racism legislation.
Voorpost, a Flemish nationalist ‘White Power’ group, has also experienced a surge in support following the Brussels attacks, according to its leader Bart Vanpachtenbeke.
Mr Vanpachtenbeke said a “huge number of people” had started supporting the far-right group online and the number of new members had more than doubled since the bombings in the Belgian capital.
A statement after the Brussels attacks on Voorpost’s website read: “The guilty of these attacks are undoubtedly Muslim fundamentalists, but even more guilty is the political establishment which has for several decades and continues to conduct a policy of fear concerning migration, regulation and open borders and the regular media with subjective dissipation of news and Muslim pampering.
“The relaxed policy and subjective journalism in Flanders have created a breeding ground for radical Islam which considers itself off-limits and has ensured that radical Islam has become anchored in our cities and can barely be controlled.”
Voorpost, meaning ‘outpost’ in Dutch, is predominantly a Flemish nationalist organisation that wants to re-join Flanders with the Netherlands, Afrikaner South Africa and Dutch-speaking areas of Germany.
The far-right group, which is avowedly against immigration, the European Union (EU) and “Islamisation”, was founded by a member of Vlaams Blok in 1976.
Muslims account for eight per cent of the Belgian population and 25 per cent in Brussels.
Mr Vanpachtenbeke, who promised “drastic action” and “a lot of noise” after the Brussels attacks, said: "I think there are dark times coming. We can't give any information, but we are planning a lot of new protests.”
Voorpost is closely monitored by Belgian security services who believe the nationalist group are at risk of committing violence.
However, the numbers are “far smaller” than radical extremists, according to Vidhya Ramalingham, a fellow at the German Institute on Radicalisation and De-radicalisation Studies.
Belgium has not experienced the same unrest between locals and immigrants as seen in Germany, Finland and Sweden - but tensions are rising as the country continues to welcome refugees arriving in Europe.