The ideological war between skeptics and science enthusiasts in this pandemic took very concrete form in Belgium: a police chase that lasted 21 days and mobilized around 350 police and military, search dogs, helicopters and at least 50 military trucks. .
They scour north-eastern Flanders (the Flemish region in the northern half of the country) in search of military gunnery instructor Jürgen Conings, 46, who fled with “an arsenal and sufficient ammunition to a little war “after threatening to kill one of the country’s biggest – and most popular – virologist, Marc van Ranst.
A specialist in “camouflage and aim”, the former soldier is described by the government as “difficult to find and incredibly dangerous”, and an international search warrant has been issued by Interpol. Special units from Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands help search and patrol borders that could be crossed by Conings.
On the day of his disappearance, the ex-soldier took with him a rocket launcher, a P90 submachine gun – a semi-automatic light weapon that can pierce bulletproof vests, according to the Belgian army – and a 5.7 mm pistol. from the barracks. “I cannot live with the lies of those who decide how we should live. The so-called political elite and now virologists are also deciding how you and I should live. They sow hatred and frustration, worse than they already were ”.
Then he went to the street where Van Ranst lives and rang a bell for three hours, waiting for him to go to work. Fortunately, the head of the department of clinical and epidemiological virology at the Catholic University of Louvain had returned exceptionally early and was already at home with his wife and 12-year-old son.
Since then, Van Ranst and his family have been locked in a secure house guarded by security guards. The threat is taken so seriously that the scientist cannot approach windows or even give videoconference interviews, so there are no images that allow his location.
The scientist, who will be 56 on the next 20, has become a visible target in Belgium for his frequent appearances on television and radio and at press conferences where restrictions to contain the coronavirus have been announced. The satires of his interviews have been viewed over 1.5 million times on YouTube, and he has even featured on pop radio and television shows.
In addition to visibility, he adopted from the start an attitude of “fighting Belgium’s two diseases: the coronavirus and the Flemish far right”. Conings’ threat is the most serious and recent, but there have been several more in the past year, and Van Ranst has even been sued by nationalists for “causing economic damage”.
A few days after being placed under police protection, the virologist even entered the lion’s den: he joined a group of messaging applications called “Als 1 man achter Jürgen” (“like a man behind Jürgen” in support of the ex-soldier) and provoked his nearly 1,000 participants.
“I thought I would come and see that creativity is bubbling up here. I have to say I’m disappointed, “he wrote, later adding:” Lots of spelling mistakes !!! (…) No standards, but again, what can you expect from a group of terrorists? “
He told VRT News that it might not be the wisest thing to do, “but you don’t always think it logically”: “I’m very angry. I’m stuck here. Foreigners are very easy to judge. ” a second far-right activist was arrested in Flanders for threats against the virologist.
The fugitive sniper was already on the police counterterrorism list as a “potentially violent extremist with extremist views who intends to use violence but has not yet taken concrete steps to do so “.
He was affiliated with the far-right Vlaams Belang party, which was criticized for creating animosity against virologists over measures to restrict the contagion of the coronavirus, seen as a violation of their freedoms.
Vlaams Belang said they had no connection with their actions or responsibility, but endorsed their “state of mind”. “The acts Conings wants to do are reprehensible, but the unease he describes is widespread,” party chairman Tom van Grieken said.
Besides the individual danger posed by the ex-soldier, there is concern about the growth of the far right within the armed forces, which is also documented in recent reports in Germany and the UK. Another problem for the Belgian government is the collective repercussion: in Flanders, where 40% of the population wants to separate from Belgium.
Flemish protesters staged acts of support for the sniper after he began to be wanted by police, and a Conings support group drew more than 50,000 members until it was canceled by Facebook last week. The Vlaams Belang attacked the blockade: “It only fuels the existing anger.
Last week, the terrorist’s search focused on a national park where his car and the heaviest and most dangerous weapons were found. The court filed a “terrorist attempted murder” complaint, and police say they want to capture him alive, although they do not rule out the possibility that he is dead. In a note to his girlfriend before disappearing, he said: “I join the resistance. Maybe I will not survive.”