Brothers identified as Belgium bombers as manhunt intensifies
Two suicide bombers who struck Brussels were identified Wednesday as brothers linked to the prime suspect in the November 13 Paris attacks, as a manhunt for a third assailant in Belgium's bloodiest terror assault gained pace.
A day after the triple blasts that killed some 30 people and left around 250 injured, in an operation claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, RTBF television said police had identified two suicide attackers as Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui.
Police had already been hunting the pair over their links to Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in November’s Paris terror attacks, who was arrested in Brussels on Friday after four months on the run.
Three days of national mourning have been declared, in a country deeply shocked by the carnage. The population of Brussels was also asked to observe a minute’s silence at noon (1100 GMT) Wednesday, led by King Philippe and Prime Minister Charles Michel.
Two suicide blasts hit Brussels’ Zaventem airport on Tuesday morning followed soon after by a third on a train at Maalbeek station, close to the European Union’s institutions, just as rush-hour commuters were heading to work.
The bloodshed was unprecedented in a city that is home to both NATO and the EU as well as Belgium’s capital.
The attacks sent the city into lockdown and European airports scrambled to boost security, amid fresh questions over Europe’s ability to combat terrorism little more than four months after the Paris attacks that left 130 dead and 350 wounded.
Brussels’ subway was partially running again by Wednesday morning under tight security, with soldiers checking passengers’ bags at station entrances. The rush-hour crowds on the platforms were noticeably thinner than usual.
“I’m a bit afraid, especially for my little brothers,” said Dominique Salazar, 18, who was taking her siblings, three and six years old, to school.
“But we don’t any other choice to get around.”
– Attacker on the run –
Belgian authorities have launched a dragnet, releasing CCTV images of three men pushing trolleys through the airport and issuing a public appeal for information. Two of the men died in suicide blasts. The third, whose explosives did not go off, is still on the run.
Prosecutors said police raids were carried out across Belgium on Tuesday, adding that a bomb, an Islamic State flag and chemicals were found in one apartment.
RTBF said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment in Brussels last week under a false name where Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found.
He is also linked to another apartment in southern Belgium that Abdeslam and other jihadists used before the Paris attacks.
The link to Abdeslam — who told prosecutors he was planning an attack on Brussels — has underscored fears about authorities’ inability to undermine jihadist networks in Belgium, Europe’s top exporter of jihadist fighters to Syria per capita.
Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, was arrested in a dramatic raid Friday in the rundown Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek — just around the corner from his family home.
“This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Michel said Tuesday on national television, vowing the country would not be cowed by the “deadliest attacks we have ever seen in Belgium”.
Leaders across Europe reacted with outrage, with the EU vowing to defend democracy and tolerance but also combat terrorism “with all means necessary.”
“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from November’s attacks.
– Landmarks light up for Belgium –
Landmarks from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate lit up in the black, yellow and red of Belgium’s national flag in solidarity on Tuesday night.
On social media, thousands of users shared images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears.
Flags will fly at half mast on public buildings across Belgium through Thursday, while Brussels’ historic Place de la Bourse has become the centre for a public outpouring of grief, covered with messages of solidarity, candles and flowers.
The death toll on Tuesday was put at more than 30 dead, but officials said Wednesday they still could not give a final figure.
“We do not have a definitive total; for the moment it remains at what we get gave yesterday, some 30 dead and about 250 injured,” a spokesman for the anti-terror Crisis Centre told AFP.
– Victims from around the world –
The first victim to be identified was Adelma Marina Tapia Ruiz, a Peruvian woman who had been living in Brussels for six years, who died in the airport bombing.
Three Americans, eight French citizens, two Britons, two Colombians and an Ecuadorian are among the injured.
The Islamic State claimed the bombings, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attacks against “the crusader state” of Belgium — part of the international coalition that has been carrying out strikes against IS in Iraq.
The government had been considering extending the strikes against IS targets in Syria, where the jihadists still hold swathes of territory.
Analysts said the attacks pointed to a sophisticated jihadist network in Europe, and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there was an “urgent need” to tighten the EU’s external borders following the attacks.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Europe had “allowed security to slip”, questioning the wisdom of EU’s Schengen passport-free zone, while the US warned citizens about the “potential risks” of travelling in Europe.