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Belgian grenade attack casts somber shadow

By Nic Robertson, CNN
updated 3:27 PM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
People leave tributes Wednesday at the site of Tuesday's lethal gun and grenade attack in central Liege, Belgium.
People leave tributes Wednesday at the site of Tuesday's lethal gun and grenade attack in central Liege, Belgium.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Residents of Liege say they are shocked by the attack and fear for their children's safety
  • The motivation of attacker Nourdine Amrani, 33, is not known, police say
  • Neighbors say they saw little of the suspect, who lived in Liege
  • Amrani, previously convicted of arms offenses, was known to a local gun store owner

Liege, Belgium (CNN) -- Flowers, teddy bears and candles mark the spot Wednesday where a gunman tossed grenades into a crowded Liege market square a day before, claiming several lives and wounding scores more.

The mood in Place St. Lambert, a square which would normally be bustling with Christmas shoppers, was somber Wednesday as Belgians took stock of an attack unprecedented in their history.

Workers at the Christmas market opened up their stalls, housed in wooden cabins, but trade was slow.

One woman said they had been told they could start trading later, if they wanted first to pay tribute to the five people killed and 130 wounded before the attacker, Liege resident Nourdine Amrani, apparently took his own life.

Market stall holder Julie Six-Bourgoin was still shaking as she talked about Tuesday's attack, calling it "horrible" and comparing its effect on the peaceful country to that of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Other people in the city said that Christmas would not be the same and that they could not understand why the attack occurred.

Video shows aftermath of Belgium attack

Officials say Amrani, 33, who had no record of mental illness, hurled his three grenades and fired a pistol and semi-automatic weapon from an elevated walkway above a bus stop in the square.

The attack seemed to have left the city's people with a new sense of vulnerability, with those waiting for buses Wednesday standing back under the walkway, as if to protect themselves from another aerial assault.

Chunks missing from a granite wall testified to the ferocity of the grenade blasts, with bullet holes also pocking the hard surface.

One mother who was a few yards away from the gunman when he opened fire said she now feared for the safety of her children. Another recounted how her children had left school early and passed through the bus stop only shortly before it was attacked, narrowly avoiding the tragedy.

In a restaurant, near-silence replaced the usual hubbub, as people appeared to withdraw into themselves, reflecting on the tragedy just a day earlier.

So far, public anger over the attack seems limited. Few questions have yet been asked about how a man convicted of weapons offenses was able to get his hands on guns and grenades.

The owner of one of the city's two main gun stores, which appeared to stock dozens of automatic-style weapons, said he knew Amrani but refused to answer further questions.

Police are investigating whether Amrani bought the weapons used in the attack on the black market, said Katrin Delcourt, spokeswoman for the provincial governor's office.

She said Amrani, who held a French hunting license under which he bought at least one firearm before his 2008 conviction, was skilled in using and maintaining weapons.

A woman, said to be a cleaner in her late 40s, was found dead in a residence next to a workshop where Amrani once grew marijuana, local police said. But he seems to have kept a relatively low profile in the area.

Neighbors of Amrani who spoke to CNN said they had seldom seen him around. One man said he had realized Amrani was a neighbor only after recognizing his picture in a newspaper.

Amrani, a Belgian citizen, had been released from prison on conditional parole in October 2010 but returned to the attention of police in November this year.

He had been asked to attend a police interview on the day of the attack in connection with allegations of sexual offenses, the Liege prosecutor said.

So far, public scrutiny has not yet turned to why he was not arrested and brought in for questioning, given his track record.

But as the city's shock fades and investigations continue into what led him to launch his deadly gun and grenade rampage, such questions will likely come to the forefront.

CNN's Paul Cruickshank contributed to this report.

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