After 35-Day Manhunt for Missing Far-Right Soldier, Body Is Found in Belgium

EXCLUSIVE: Brussels It was a 35-day manhunt in Belgium that involved helicopters, armoured vehicles, 400 troops and police officers, as well as reinforcements from Germany and the Netherlands, that ended on Sunday in the finding of a body suspected to be that of a missing soldier with far-right affiliations.

The death of Jürgen Conings, 46, was recovered in a woodland where he went missing more than a month ago after threatening the government and virologists responsible for the country’s reaction to the coronavirus, the federal prosecutor said. Armed with weapons stolen from an army storage, the soldier possessed four rocket launchers, a submachine gun, and a semiautomatic pistol.

Mr. Conings, a shooting instructor who was labelled as a high-level threat to national security in February, is believed to have committed himself with a firearm, according to the prosecutor.

Before his disappearance on May 17, Mr. Conings wrote to his girlfriend, promising to fight till the end.

“The so-called political elite and now virologists decide how you and I should live,” he said in his article. We’ve been taken advantage of by the government and the virologists, he said. “I don’t care if I die or not,” I tell myself.

The abduction of the soldier occurred at a time when many in Belgium were fed up with the economic toll that pandemic restrictions were having on the country. According to Covid-19 deaths per capita, the country has implemented one of the longest lockdowns in Europe.

The Belgian far-right has used the flu outbreak to stoke public discontent with the government. The appearance of various right-wing extremist people and organisations disseminating conspiracy theories about Covid-19 was foreshadowed by official security reports as early as last spring.

Jurgen Conings Credit… The Belgian Federal Police

The federal prosecutor was looking into Mr. Conings’ ties to far-right radicals.

Before the soldier went missing, he went to Marc Van Ranst’s house and waited outside for him to come from work before he disappeared. Dr. Van Ranst, on the other hand, had just returned from his first day off in 16 months.

In the past, Mr. Conings had made threats against Dr. Van Ranst, the government’s SARS commissioner in 2009, who is a well-known figure. Anti-racism and anti-xenophobic statements made by Dr. Van Ranst have earned the ire of the far right as well.

Dr. Van Ranst and his family were relocated to a secure area following the disappearance of the soldier. It was Dr. Van Ranst’s 56th birthday on Sunday when the body was found and he told the local media, “I want to get back into my usual life soon.”

He showed sympathy to the soldier’s family despite his lack of sympathy for Mr. Conings.

At the age of 18, Mr. Conings enlisted in the Army. However, the Belgian authorities say he was demoted and stripped of his security clearance last year after making racist remarks and threats against Dr. Van Ranst and others.

Following his demotion, Mr. Conings was given an access card to an ammunition depot, even though Belgian authorities had labelled him as a “extremist” by the security services.

Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south make up the country’s two main linguistic and political regions. Politicians in the centre confront opposition from the far left and far right in each country’s government and political environment.

In Flanders, where Mr. Conings and Dr. Van Ranst reside, as well as two right-wing groups, the challenge is particularly obvious. An ultranationalist anti-immigration group called Vlaams Belang has earned a lot of support in recent years.

Facebook blocked a group called “All united behind Jürgen” after 45,000 people joined it following the disappearance of Mr. Conings. In a group named “As one man behind Jürgen!” on the encrypted messaging service Telegram, over 3,300 people have been sharing messages of support.

Only about 350 people showed out for a demonstration in support of Mr. Conings a week after the Facebook group asked for it.

Reporting by Koba Ryckewaert.