BRUSSELS – A massacre on a high-speed train in Belgium was prevented Friday when two members of the U.S. military in civilian clothing surprised an Islamist militant, authorities said.
The suspect was loading his automatic Kalashnikov rifle in a toilet, apparently preparing to attack, when the service members confronted him, said a European counterterrorism official.
The gunman fired on them with a handgun, the official said, wounding at least one. Three people were injured aboard the Thalys train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, authorities said.
The service members overpowered the suspect, who was placed under arrest when the train was rerouted to the French town of Arras, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) north of Paris.
A U.S. military member was wounded, a Pentagon official said.
It was not clear in what branch of the military the Americans served.
The European counterterrorism official identified them as Marines. The White House called them U.S. service members. A member of the Oregon National Guard on personal leave was involved, said spokesman Maj. Stephen Bomar.
The suspected gunman, a Moroccan national, was on the radar screen of European counterterrorism agencies for his radical jihadist views, the European counterterrorism official said.
A second security source told CNN the gunman was known by French intelligence. The official said it appeared the gunman was sympathetic to ISIS, but a full determination on his specific loyalties had yet to be reached.
The man had plenty of ammunition, the first official said, and the Americans prevented a massacre.
The attack occurred while the train was on Belgian soil and Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel tweeted, “I condemn the terrorist attack on the Thalys and offer my sympathy to the victims.”
The train attack has not officially been classified as an act of terrorism, although the senior European counterterrorism official indicated it was suspected.
Calling the attack “an attack of barbaric violence,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office in Paris will investigate.
He expressed “gratitude and admiration” for the U.S. military service members’ help.
Michel and French President Francois Hollande have agreed to unite their efforts and cooperate, French officials said.
Two people were hospitalized with serious injuries but their lives are not in danger, said Anthony Blondeau, spokesman for the city of Arras. He said one of them was an American.
The third person injured was French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who has a light hand injury, Blondeau said.
A White House official said Friday night: “Echoing the statements of French authorities, the President expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker.
“While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy. We will remain in close contact with French authorities as the investigation proceeds.”
A Pentagon spokesman told CNN: “We are aware of the reports and at this point, can only confirm that one U.S. military member was injured in the incident, the injury is non life-threatening. We will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as they become available.”
Thalys tweeted Friday night that “The first passengers of Thalys 9364 are arriving in Paris-North; they are currently taken care of.”
Thalys is the high-speed red train which travels from Paris to Brussels in 1 hour 22 minutes, to Cologne, Germany, in 3 hours 14 minutes and Amsterdam in only 3 hours and 16 minutes.
Christophe Piednoel, spokesman from the French railway company SNCF, said the suspect carried an automatic weapon and a bladed weapon.
The train was heading to Paris when the attack occurred. France has been the site of several lone-wolf terror attacks this year, including the killing of 17 people in Paris in attacks on a satiric magazine and a kosher store.