Reuters – Letters containing a nerve gas ingredient were sent to the Belgian prime minister’s office, the U.S. and British embassies and a court trying al Qaeda suspects in Brussels, the federal prosecutor said Wednesday. Two postal workers were taken to hospital after being exposed to the chemicals in the letters at mail depots.
No one else was injured by the 10 letters sent to a variety of targets, also including the Saudi Arabian embassy, three ministries, an airport and a port authority.
The brownish-yellow powder contained phenarsazine chloride, an arsenic derivative used in nerve gas, as well as hydrazine, an agent used as a rocket propellant, the Health Ministry said. Both substances are also found in pesticides.
The letters contained no more than a spoonful of the chemicals # not enough to be life-threatening # but caused irritation to the eyes and skin and affected breathing, Health Ministry spokeswoman Anne-Francoise Gally said.
Police suspect the letters came from a single source in Belgium, said a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor’s office, overseeing the investigation.
“There are clear indications that the sender of the letters is one and the same person,” Lieve Pellens told VRT television. “There are clear similarities among the letters,” she said, referring to the handwriting on the envelopes.
Pellens said some of them contained a written note reading “International Islamic Society” and “Bastards” in English.
“The first checks by police specialists show that this organization is unknown,” she said.
TRIAL UNDER WAY
The apparent attack came as 23 suspected collaborators of the al Qaeda Muslim militant network stood trial in Brussels on charges of fraud, possession of firearms, recruiting for a foreign armed force and other crimes.
The charges link them to the killing of Ahmad Shah Masood, an Afghan commander who fought the Taliban, as well as a plan to attack a Belgian air base said to house U.S. nuclear weapons.
The letters were reminiscent of the anthrax mailings that killed five people in the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks blamed on fugitive Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda movement.
Belgium and other west European countries have been on heightened alert for possible attacks following last month’s suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, also blamed on al Qaeda or people affiliated with it.
Police suspect toxic letters were sent to the airport in the coastal town of Oostende and the Antwerp port authority because both were transit points for U.S. military equipment shipped to the Gulf before the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Pellens told Reuters.
Police intercepted some of the letters but those sent to the British and Saudi Arabian embassies slipped through.
“It wasn’t opened…the police have come this morning and removed the envelope,” British embassy spokeswoman Lucy Joyce told VRT. “It was a fairly ordinary white envelope.”
Saudi and U.S. embassy officials declined comment.
Belgium had anthrax scares in 2001 but investigations found the letters contained innocuous powder. The latest discoveries were the first to involve dangerous substances.