Tuesday 20 March 2018

Brussels in state of chaos as police search for perpetrators of the attacks

In this photo provided by Ralph Usbeck travellers stand in a smoke filled terminal at Brussels Airport, in Brussels after explosions Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
In this photo provided by Ralph Usbeck travellers stand in a smoke filled terminal at Brussels Airport, in Brussels after explosions Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Sarah Collins in Brussels

Brussels remains in a state of chaos this afternoon as army and police lock down the city following a succession of bomb blasts at the airport and a metro station that Belgian prime minister Charles Michel called “blind, violent and cowardly”.

Police cars and ambulances wail across the city while helicopters criss-cross the sky as police search for the perpetrators of the attacks.

All public transport has been suspended, children are being kept inside school gates and government and EU buildings have been put on high alert.

The Belgian federal public prosecutor has opened up a criminal inquiry into the attacks and Belgian media are reporting police raids are taking place across the city.

Eyewitnesses at the airport said the blast occurred near the entrance to the departures hall, close to a Starbucks coffee shop and where travellers access city centre train and bus links. 

All passengers have now been evacuated from the scene, and all flights cancelled until at least tomorrow, the Brussels airport authority confirmed.

In Brussels city, EU institutions are in lockdown, with their internal terror alerts raised a notch following the blast at the Maelbeek metro station, which is located at the heart of the EU district.

One Irish official working in the institutions said he was advised not to leave the building, and to move away from offices with street-facing windows.

The Irish embassies in Brussels - both the bilateral embassy to Belgium and the Permanent Representation to the EU - say they have established the safety of all staff and have set up a Dublin-based number for people to call if they are worried about relatives and friends in the Belgian capital.

A spokesman for the European Commission said there was “no indication this was a terror attack on the EU institutions” and that the Belgian security services were in charge of safety operations.

However, there is plenty of nervousness and agitation inside the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, where the 28 commissioners and their staff are housed.

Flags are flying at half-mast outside, and people are being advised not to leave if they are already inside the building and to stay home if they have not yet arrived.

Two of the European Commission’s offices - those closest to the Maelbeek metro station, where an explosion hit just after 9am local time - have been evacuated.

The staff canteen in one of the buildings, at 86 Rue de la Loi, is being used to treat the injured from the blast.

A hotel close to the metro station, the Thon Hotel on Rue de la Loi, is also acting as a makeshift hospital for the Maelbeek metro victims.

All qualified doctors from the EU institutions have been sent down to help deal with the carnage as the death toll mounts.

Many people on the street feel bewildered by the attacks, which seem to have been orchestrated to coincide with the busy rush hour period and to target air travellers heading home for the Easter holidays.

They follow four days after the arrest of the most wanted man in Europe, Salah Abdeslam, a development which had brought the country - and the beleaguered security services - a mild sense of relief.

All that has evaporated now as Belgians prepare for another period of high alert, with army patrols on the streets, cancelled public events and public transport chaos.

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