Belgium sets May 9 for failed Verviers plot trial

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Brussels (AFP)

Belgian judges on Friday set May 9 as the trial date for 16 people linked to a jihadist cell in the rust-belt town of Verviers that was dismantled by police in a deadly raid last year.

Belgian police raided an apartment in the town on January 15, 2015 killing two men and capturing a third, just two weeks after the attack in Paris against the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper.

Belgian police said at the time the cell was planning to kill and kidnap police officers under orders from the Islamic State jihadist group in Syria.

All three men were from Molenbeek, the gritty immigrant area of Brussels and home to several of the jihadists that would go on to carry out the attacks in Paris in November and last month's suicide bombings in Brussels, which killed 162 people in total and was claimed by IS.

Police believe the suspected ringleader of the November 13 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was central to the Verviers events giving orders to the would-be assailants by phone from Greece.

The main suspect at the trial will be Marouane El Bali, who is accused of attempted murder for firing at police during the gun fight, an allegation his defense team firmly denies.

"He was a small player and was absolutely not aware of any planned attacks," his lawyer Sébastien Courtoy told Belga news agency.

Killed in the raid were Sofiane Amghar and Khalid Ben Larbi who left Molenbeek to join Islamic State in Syria in April 2014. The two then slipped back into Belgium to the Verviers hideout which is about 120 kilometres east of Brussels.

The trial is scheduled to last three weeks.