Four accused of murdering Palestinian boy in Belgian asylum center

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Belgian authorities on Thursday charged four young Palestinian men with the murder of a nine-year-old Palestinian boy at an asylum-seekers’ center near Belgium’s northern port city of Antwerp.

Officials said the boy, who had been staying with his mother in the Broechem center, went missing late on Monday before a search turned up his lifeless body in a ditch on Wednesday.

The Antwerp’s prosecutor’s office said an investigating judge charged four of the five people who were arrested on Wednesday with his murder.

“The facts are qualified as hostage-taking and murder,” the prosecutor’s office in Antwerp said in a statement without confirming a news report the boy may have been kidnapped for ransom.

The accused are aged 19, 20, 21 and 24 years old, the prosecutor’s office said, with spokesman Kristof Aerts confirming they are Palestinian. The fifth man arrested faces possible charges later Thursday.

The shocking case has drawn the attention of Prime Minister Charles Michel.

“An investigation will be conducted in a transparent and independent manner. The culprits must be punished,” Michel wrote in a tweet earlier, offering his condolences after this “tragic death.”

The boy, born in Lebanon but of Palestinian origin, had been staying with his 26-year-old mother in the Broechem asylum center when he disappeared on Monday evening, Aerts said.

He was last seen riding his bike. A search operation found the boy’s lifeless body in a ditch on the grounds of the reception center on Wednesday afternoon.

Newspapers in the northern, Dutch-speaking region of Flanders reported the boy died in a possible extortion case.

The daily Het Laatste Nieuws said the boy’s aunt, who lived in the same center had received a threatening telephone text message: “100,000 euros or you will never again see Daniel alive.”

The prosecutor’s office did not confirm the report.

A source close to the prosecution told AFP that statements that the accused have given investigators “are not clear” and none of them has confessed to the alleged crimes.

Belgium, a country of about 11 million inhabitants, receives about 20,000 asylum seekers annually, many of whom come from conflict areas in the Middle East, according to the Fedasil agency website.