The Belgian government is facing a crisis after it emerged that a heavily armed soldier who made threats to a high-profile virologist then went on the run was flagged as a “serious threat” by the security services three months before he went awol.
Cpl Jürgen Conings, a specialist marksman, has not been seen since he disappeared on 17 May after taking four anti-tank missile launchers, a submachine gun and a bulletproof vest from his barracks.
It has now emerged in an official 35-page report that the military intelligence body that analyses threats from terrorism and extremism in Belgium had evaluated Conings, 46, as a serious level three threat on 17 February. The highest threat level is four. The information was passed to military intelligence but it appears to have been ignored.
The official report by Maj Gen Peter Devogelaere was due to be discussed by a defence committee of Belgium’s federal parliament on Wednesday afternoon, with the main concern being how a man regarded as a level three threat to the state was able to walk out of a barracks with such an arsenal of weapons.
That session was delayed, however, by a leak of the report to Le Soir newspaper, which was also able to disclose that €650,000 of taxpayers’ money had so far been spent on the fruitless search for Conings, including on bonuses for soldiers deployed on the weekend, armoured vehicles and the use of a NH90 combat helicopter.
The defence minister, Ludivine Dedonder, assured the committee she had not been behind the leak.
Before he disappeared, Conings left letters for his wife and the police in which he made threats to kill Marc Van Ranst, Belgium’s best-known virologist and an adviser to the government on its tough Covid restrictions. Van Ranst and his family have been moved to a safe house. Conings had said he planned to “join the resistance”.
The search for the soldier, who had known and 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. The four anti-tank rocket launchers had been left in the car. The discovery last week of a bag of ammunition suggests, however, that Conings is still in possession of a shotgun, a submachine gun and a pistol.