BRUSSELS — An axe-wielding arsonist burst into a Shiite Belgian mosque, killing the imam and destroying much of the building in an attack local Muslims tipped as the work of Sunni extremists.
Police said the man, detained after mosque personnel trapped him inside the building, apparently used fuel to set fire to the Rida mosque near Brussels' international rail hub, killing 46-year-old father-of-four Abdallah Dadou.
The victim, who died of smoke inhalation, was described by worshipper Abdel Adouzeyneb, a 39-year-old real estate agent, as "a person who was loved by everybody -- he was open, well integrated, smiling and happy."
A second person who was with the victim at the time of the attack was lightly injured.
Police were unable to immediately name the suspect as he lacked identity papers, but authorities said the man described himself as a Muslim born in 1978. Authorities are investigating his motives and whether he had accomplices.
Azzedine Laghmich, an official at the mosque, told AFP the attacker was "a Salafist," who sprayed petrol inside the mosque before setting it alight and shouting Sunni slogans on his way out -- cries related to the conflict in Syria.
"All the eyewitness accounts said so," Laghmich added.
Isabelle Praile, another senior official in Belgium's organised Muslim community, said the Rida mosque "had already been placed under police protection several years ago," citing direct threats from members of the ultra-conservative Salafist movement.
Around 100 men gathered on the edge of a police cordon near the mosque, angrily chanting Shiite slogans while some cried and others hugged and prayed. Police forensics teams scoured the scene of the attack.
"I brought my eight-year-old son here with me so that he can see blind hate, what it can do," said Ismael Ben Mohammad, 40, adding that he felt "a sadness difficult to describe."
The mayor of the city's Anderlecht ward, Gaetan Van Goidsenhoven, appealed for calm at an overnight press conference, saying it was "not only necessary to live side-by-side, but also to allow justice and the police to do their work."
Prosecutor Jean-Marc Meilleur said the arson suspect had come armed with a knife and an axe, but that "people inside the mosque managed to lock him in the building" before police arrived.
"At the moment, there is only one suspect," he said, without excluding accomplices and stressing it was "too soon" to pin down possible motives.
Another press conference has been scheduled for 11:00 am (1000 GMT) on Tuesday.
The area around the 2,000-capacity mosque, one of four Shiite centres of worship in the city's overwhelming majority Sunni Muslim community, has a large immigrant Muslim population.
Police said they received a call at 6:45 pm (1745 GMT) and the body was pulled out 45 minutes later.
Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said she was "very shocked by the events that have occurred" which she condemned "with firmness and indignation."
Fadila Laanan, a regional minister, said on her Twitter account that she was "scandalised by this attack in my community against a mosque."
"A man is dead and that is despicable, nothing can excuse such an act."
The last time an imam was targeted in Brussels was in 1989 when Saudi-born Abdullah Muhammad al-Ahdal was shot dead.
He served as imam in the Grand Mosque of Brussels and was killed on March of that year by an armed man inside the mosque.
His killing was claimed by a small pro-Iranian group in Lebanon who accused him of being too moderate and of having rejected the death fatwa slapped on writer Salman Rushdie.