Police officers stands on a roadblock in Verviers January 16, 2015. EU counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove told on January 17, 2015 that the threat of an attack against Belgian police forces was imminent, Belgian media reported. Photo taken January 16, 2015. REUTERS/Yves Herman(reuters_tickers)
By Robert-Jan Bartunek
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian judges on Friday set a May 9 trial date for three men accused of plotting Islamic State attacks that were foiled by a police raid in the town of Verviers last year in which two men died in a gunbattle.
A further 13 people will be tried for their involvement in what officials said at the time of the raid in January last year was a plan to kidnap and kill Belgian policemen. Nine of the 13 are believed still to be fighting in Syria's civil war.
Among others indicted but now dead were Abdelhamid Abaaoud, accused of being the leader of the cell broken up in Verviers and of being an organiser of the Nov. 13 shooting and bombing rampage by Islamic State militants in Paris attacks. He was killed in a clash with police four days after those attacks.
The Belgian government has referred to its success against the Verviers group in rejecting criticism of its security forces since it became clear that the Islamic State attacks on Paris in November and last month in Brussels were organised from Belgium.
On March 22, three suicide bombers killed 32 people at Brussels Airport and on the metro.
In an early warning of the militant threat to Belgium, which for years has been trying to crack down on large numbers of young men travelling to fight in Syria, police stormed a house in Verviers, an eastern industrial town, on Jan. 15 -- a week after Islamist militants attacked Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Police killed two men -- both Belgians from North African immigrant families -- who opened fire on them. The security forces mounted several other raids at that time against an Islamist cell that federal prosecutors said was about to launch "terrorist attacks on a grand scale".
Nine of the 16 people standing trial were not present in the heavily secured courtroom in Brussels on Friday and are still believed to be in Syria.
Among those present were three men accused of planning an attack in Belgium. One of them, Marouan El Bali, was in the apartment in Verviers when police moved in, prosecutors said.
He is accused of being a leader in a terrorist group, attempted murder, making and keeping of bombs and planning an attack on a non-specified building, his lawyer said.
His lawyer added that El Bali was a childhood friend of one of the men who was killed by police and could not be considered a leader of a terrorist organisation.
Under Belgian law a defendant is not required to enter a plea.
(Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Mark Heinrich)