Ten children and two staff were wounded, some seriously, in the attack in the town of Dendermonde near Brussels, prosecutor Christian Du Four said as anxious parents gathered to identify the victims and injured.
The man, who had his face painted white with black around his eyes, rang the doorbell at the The Country of Fables day-care centre at about 10:00 am.
After staff opened the door, he barged in with a 30-centimetre (12-inch) long knife and ran amok slashing at some of the children as they lay in beds, officials said.
Captured and detained
The suspect escaped on a bicycle but was detained nearby. He will likely face murder charges, Du Four said.
“The guy just went crazy,” Theo Janssens, the Dendermonde deputy mayor for social affairs, told AFP with tears in his eyes. “There was blood everywhere, it was unbelievable, real carnage.”
“He went straight for the babies and attacked them,” Janssens said. “The smallest ones were in their beds, they were probably asleep.”
One child and a 54-year-old female employee died at the scene while a second child later died from the wounds. Eighteen children, none more than three years old were in the creche at the time, officials said.
Ten children, including the two most seriously injured, and two adults underwent surgery and were out of danger, a doctor, Ignace De Meyer, told reporters.
Anxious wait for parents
Parents gathered in the Dendermonde town hall and, with psychologists in support, identified the victims using photographs.
Du Four said the suspect entered the building by saying that “he had a question he needed to ask somebody.”
“He quickly pulled out a knife and started using it on the children,” the prosecutor added.
“He then went up to another floor and started doing the same thing again” e said. The man\’s face was smeared with white and his eyes were blackened, the prosecutor said.
Six women members of staff tried to put themselves between the attacker and the children. One was hacked to death and two others were wounded in the legs or shoulders, officials said.
The suspect quickly fled but was picked up by police a few kilometres (miles) away, officials said.
“He didn\’t panic, yes, he was calm,” a man who lived next to the crèche told RTL-TVI television, describing the suspect as extremely thin and tall.
Du Four denied rumours that the suspect had escaped from a psychiatric ward or was high on drugs or alcohol.
Suspect’s identity unknown
The prosecutor refused to identify him except to say he was a 20-year-old Belgian from the region. He said the man has not spoken about the attack.
“There is enough incriminating evidence to bring him before the investigative magistrate and get an arrest warrant,” Du Four said, adding that the murder weapon was found.
A woman at the day-care centre said that the man was not known to staff.
“We are horrified by the events. Our thoughts go out to the families and staff of the creche. Many parents are in a state of shock,” Interior Minister Guido De Padt told the press conference.
Earlier attacks on schools
The tragedy is one of a number of deadly attacks at schools or child care centres in Europe in recent years.
Belgium is still in shock over the case of a woman who cut the throats of her five children and a series of paedophile scandals.
“The country is in shock and sorrow at this horrible act of violence committed in a society that strives to live in harmony and peace with everyone,” said Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy in a statement.