Wednesday 7 December 2016

Belgians in mourning and on high alert as police hunt Brussels attack suspect

Published 23/03/2016 | 18:55

Policesaid they were looking for this man, who is suspected of taking part in the attacks at Belgium's Zaventem Airport
Policesaid they were looking for this man, who is suspected of taking part in the attacks at Belgium's Zaventem Airport
A woman and children sit and mourn for the victims of the bombings, at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels (AP)

Belgians have begun three days of mourning after 34 people were killed and 270 others injured in the Brussels airport and Metro bombings.

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The country remained on high alert as authorities hunted for one of the suspected attackers seen on surveillance video with two others who blew themselves up.

Several people who may be linked to the attacks were still on the loose and the country's threat alert remained at its highest level, meaning there was danger of an imminent attack, said Paul Van Tigchelt, head of Belgium's terrorism threat body.

As government offices, schools and residents held a moment of silence on Wednesday morning to honour the dead, the mood was defiance mixed with anxiety that others involved in the attacks are still at large.

Belgium's federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw identified two of the Brussels attackers as brothers - Brahim El Bakraoui, a suicide bomber at the airport, and Khalid El Bakraoui, who targeted the Metro.

Investigators raided the Brussels neighbourhood of Schaerbeek after the attacks and found a computer in a bin on the street including a note from Brahim El Bakraoui saying he felt increasingly unsafe and feared landing in prison.

A taxi driver who took Brahim El Bakraoui and two others to the airport led investigators to an apartment where they found 15 kilograms of TATP explosives, along with nails and other materials used to make bombs, Mr Van Leeuw said.

He said authorities do not know the identities of two other people pictured with El Bakraoui in a surveillance photo from the airport that police are circulating.

Two were suicide bombers, the prosecutor said. The other was a man in a white jacket and black cap who fled before the bombs went off, leaving behind a bag full of explosives. That bag later blew up, but no one was injured.

Meanwhile, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said one of the attackers was caught in Turkey in June last year and deported to the Netherlands.

An official in the Turkish president's office later said the attacker who was deported from Turkey was Brahim El Bakraoui.

Turkey said it warned both Belgium and the Netherlands that he was a "foreign terrorist fighter".

The official said Dutch authorities later allowed him to go free because Belgian authorities could not establish any ties to terrorism.

Islamic State (IS), which was behind the Paris attacks, has also claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings.

Belgian state broadcaster RTBF, citing sources it did not identify, said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment that was raided last week in an operation that led authorities to top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.

Abdeslam was arrested on Friday in the Brussels neighbourhood where he grew up, a rough place with links to several of the attackers who targeted a Paris stadium, rock concert and cafes on November 13. Those attacks killed 130 people.

A Belgian official working on the investigation said it is a "plausible hypothesis" that Abdeslam was part of the cell linked to the Brussels attack.

Authorities are also still looking for a suspected accomplice of Abdeslam, Najim Laachraoui, whom they have been searching for since last week. It is not clear if he has any connection to the Brussels attack.

Laachraoui is believed to have made the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks, a French police official told reporters, adding that Laachraoui's DNA was found on all of the vests as well as in a Brussels apartment where they were made.

French and Belgian authorities have said in recent days that the network behind the Paris attacks was much larger than initially thought - and developments this week suggest the same group could have staged both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

The airport and several Brussels Metro stations remained closed on Wednesday, and authorities said the airport would remain closed at least through Thursday, forcing the cancellation of 600 flights each day.

Security forces stood guard around the neighbourhood housing the headquarters of European Union institutions, as nervous Brussels residents began returning to school and work under a misty rain.

In the afternoon, thousands of people gathered at Place de la Bourse in the centre of downtown Brussels - including dozens of students chanting "stop the war" - in solidarity with those killed.

"In Belgium, it's not every day that we show solidarity politically," said Fanny Nicaise, 24. She came out with some friends just to see and be with others. "It's important that you aren't alone in your sadness."

Belgians paid homage and lit candles, the mood almost buoyant as people wrote on the ground with big sticks of chalk, drawing peace signs and hearts.

As befits an international city like Brussels, the foreign minister said the dead collectively held at least 40 nationalities.

"It's a war that terrorism has declared not only on France and on Europe, but on the world," French prime minister Manuel Valls told Europe-1 radio.

Mr Valls also urged tougher controls of the EU's external borders.

"We must be able to face the extension of radical Islamism ... that spreads in some of our neighbourhoods and perverts our youth," he said.

Belgian officials have confirmed that Brussels airport will remain closed at least until Saturday.

Airport spokeswoman Florence Muls said the date was pushed further back because authorities want to maintain a security perimeter until late on Friday to continue their investigation into the attacks.

In Agentina, President Barack Obama has declared that fighting the Islamic State group is his "No 1 priority" and has pledged that the United States will pursue the jihadist group until it is destroyed.

He said: "I've got a lot of things on my plate, but my top priority is to defeat ISIL and to eliminate the scourge of this barbaric terrorism that's been taking place around the world."

He added: "The issue is, how do we do it in an intelligent way?"

US Secretary of State John Kerry has, announced he is travelling to Brussels on Friday to talk with European officials about fighting terror.

Press Association

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