Belgium charges suspected Brussels airport bomber

26th March 2016, Comments 0 comments

Belgium on Saturday charged a man believed to be the fugitive third Brussels airport bomber with terrorism murder, in a breakthrough for security forces facing criticism for letting suspects slip through the net.

A huge manhunt netted the suspect officially identified as Faycal C -- and identified by local media as Faycal Cheffou -- and investigators are now working on the theory that he could be the man in a hat and white jacket pictured with two other airport bombers, but whose device failed to go off.

Brussels airport said it will not reopen before Tuesday at the earliest as it implements new security measures and repairs the departure hall wrecked by the bombers, believed to be from the Islamic State group.

Belgians in mourning will gather Sunday for a rally in a central Brussels square now carpeted with flowers and tributes to the 31 killed and 300 injured in the March 22 metro and airport bombs, with a national solidarity march also planned.

Prosecutors meanwhile also charged a man arrested in Belgium over a new plot to hit Paris, deepening the connections in what French President Francois Hollande has described as a single terror cell straddling both France and Belgium.

The Belgian government faces a torrent of criticism at home and abroad, with key ministers on the back foot saying they had done everything possible to prevent Tuesday's attacks and track a network also linked to November's Paris attacks.

Many believe it failed to stop young Belgian fighters going to Syria to join Islamic State (IS) -- which claimed the attacks -- and then returning home battle-hardened and more extremist than before.

"It is an endless nightmare for a country turned upside down," said Le Soir daily in a front-page editorial.

- 'Man in the hat' -

Heavily armed soldiers and police remained on patrol in the capital and Zaventem airport.

In an indication the city is still on edge, a bomb disposal squad carried out a controlled detonation on a southern Brussels street to destroy a suspect backpack.

Pop diva Mariah Carey on Friday cancelled a show in Brussels, saying she was advised to do so "for the safety of my fans, my band, crew and everyone involved with the tour."

In contrast, veteran French rock star Johnny Hallyday was going ahead with two planned concerts in Brussels over the weekend.

Prosecutors said Faycal C was one of three people arrested outside the Belgian federal prosecutor's office in Brussels on Thursday night as part of a huge sweep of detentions across Belgium and Europe.

"He has been charged with taking part in a terrorist group, terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder," the prosecutor said.

Asked by AFP if Faycal C. was the suspected third bomber dubbed the "man in the hat", a source close to the inquiry told AFP: "That is a hypothesis the investigators are working on."

Local media named the suspect as Faycal Cheffou, a freelance journalist.

He is the first person charged with terror offences over the Brussels attacks, the worst in the history of a country that is home to the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

A second suspect named as Rabah N. linked to a foiled plot in France was charged with taking part in terrorist activities.

French police said Friday they had foiled a terror strike in France by 34-year-old Reda Kriket -- a man previously convicted in Belgium in a terror case alongside Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud -- after arresting him and discovering explosives at his home.

A suspect shot in the leg Friday at a tram stop in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels is being held for another 24 hours as investigations into the French plot continue.

- Threat to nuclear plants -

Belgium's ageing nuclear power plants have also come under scrutiny as a possible terror risk, with the EU's anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove telling La Libre Belgique newspaper they face the threat of a terrorist cyber-attack over the next five years.

According to reports, a security guard at a Belgian nuclear power plant was murdered Thursday and his access badge stolen. Prosecutors denied any terror link, Belga news agency reported, and said that in fact the man worked at a medical research facility that used radioactive isotopes.

These reports follow the discovery by investigators last year of surveillance footage of a nuclear plant official in the flat of a suspect linked to the Brussels and Paris attacks.

European authorities are under huge pressure to better coordinate the tracking of homegrown extremists and fighters returning from Syria.

The Belgian government has admitted "errors" and two ministers offered to resign after Turkey said it had arrested and deported Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who blew himself up in the airport attack.

Ibrahim and his brother Khalid, the suicide bomber in the metro attack, were also on a US counter-terrorism watch list, CNN reported.

Belgian prosecutors have said that the DNA of second airport bomber Najim Laachraoui was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people were killed during November's Paris attacks, and on a bomb at the Stade de France stadium.

Harrowing stories continued to emerge from survivors of the attacks, in which people of around 40 nationalities were killed or wounded.

Briton David Dixon, 51, who lived in Brussels, texted his aunt after the airport blasts to say he was safe, but happened to be on the metro system and died when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Maalbeek station near Brussels' EU quarter, British media said.

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© 2016 AFP

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