Wednesday 17 January 2018

Belgium's justice minister urges critics to focus on hunt for terrorists

Belgian police and soldiers secure the area outside Zaventem Airport in Brussels (AP)
Belgian police and soldiers secure the area outside Zaventem Airport in Brussels (AP)
Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur is discussing the French response to the Paris attacks of last November

Belgium's justice minister has pleaded for critics of Belgium's intelligence failures to focus on the hunt for those behind last week's Brussels attacks and November's massacre in Paris.

Investigators say they are still looking for at least one suspect in the attacks seven days ago, when suicide bombers killed 32 people at Brussels' airport and in a subway station near the European Union headquarters. Three suicide bombers also blew themselves up.

The Health Ministry and victims identification officials said 90 people remain in hospital, a third of them suffering from severe burns.

In a joint press conference they said the 32 dead include 17 Belgians and 15 foreigners, while 44 of the wounded are foreigners from 20 nations.

Belgium has faced rising international criticism over its evident inability to identify and monitor Islamic State activists living in the Belgian capital who have been deemed responsible both for the March 22 bombings in Brussels and the November 13 attacks on Paris nightspots that left 130 dead.

Several of those who killed themselves during the attacks or were subsequently arrested were Belgian nationals of North African background.

"Now is not the time to fight one another. As far as I know, the enemy is in Syria," Justice Minister Koen Geens said, referring to the primary power base of the Islamic State extremist group that claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But authorities in Belgium and the neighbouring Netherlands faced fresh questions on Tuesday about how much they knew in advance of the March 22 bombings. Turkey already has revealed it deported one of the suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, to the Netherlands in mid-2015 after catching him near the Syrian border and identifying him to Dutch authorities as a suspected IS militant.

Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said that his country's security services received a note from the FBI on March 16 detailing what he called the "radical and terrorist background" of the El Bakraoui brothers. One, Ibrahim, blew himself up alongside an accomplice at Brussels airport, while the other brother, Khalid, detonated a bomb inside a train leaving the Maelbeek Metro station.

The timing of the note and why it was sent to the Dutch remained unclear. Belgian authorities said they were not informed of its existence and had no idea where the El Bakroaui brothers were before the Brussels bombings.

Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur, who faces criticism for his own actions before and after the suicide bombings, said Belgian authorities must learn painful lessons and improve their ability to combat Islamic militancy.

"Were there mistakes? Did we miss anything? Certainly. Otherwise these attacks would not have happened," he said. Brussels, he suggested, would never feel the same.

" There's no such thing as 'normal' anymore," he said during a visit to Paris.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo pledged solidarity with Belgium as it begins "a long and painful process of grieving and reconstruction",

Brussels airport has yet to reopen since the attacks but has been testing a temporary check-in system for use in coming days. The Metro system is mostly running again, though under heavy guard.

Press Association

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