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Brussels airport delays reopening as Belgium lowers attacks toll to 32

Brussels airport said it would not reopen on Wednesday despite drills to test resuming partial services after the suicide bombings that struck its departure hall and a metro train, as Belgium lowered the death toll to 32.

Zaventem airport has been closed since twin bombings wrecked the departure hall on March 22, in coordinated suicide attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State group and which also hit Maalbeek metro station in central Brussels.

A total of 32 people were killed in Belgium’s worst-ever terror attacks, the government said, down from an earlier toll of 35 following confusion between two lists of people who had died at the scene and in hospital.

“After thorough verification: number of victims goes down to 32. Still 94 people in hospital,” Health Minister Maggie de Block tweeted.

All the victims have now been identified — many of them foreign nationals, testament to the cosmopolitan nature of a city that is home to both the European Union and NATO.

Hundreds of employees returned to the airport Tuesday for a large-scale test run to determine if services could partially resume from Wednesday — but those hopes were dashed.

Airport spokeswoman Anke Fransen said authorities were reviewing the results of the practice run, adding: “We hope to reach a decision on a partial re-opening of the airport in the course of (Wednesday) morning.”

The airport’s chief executive Arnaud Feist has warned it could take “months” for Zaventem to be fully operational again.

In the Portuguese town of Leiria, emotional football fans fell silent for a minute on Tuesday night at the start of a friendly match against Belgium that was supposed to take place in Brussels.

The Belgian team, who lost 2-1, wore shirts that read: “In memory of all victims, Brussels, 22.03.2016.”

As Brussels struggles to get back on its feet, criticism of authorities’ handling of the case has mounted after the sole suspect charged over the attacks was freed on Monday for lack of evidence.

Prosecutors had charged the suspect, known as Faycal C., with “terrorist murder” and were investigating whether he was the third airport attacker who fled after his bomb did not detonate.

But the hunt is now back on for the so-called “man in the hat”, seen in CCTV footage next to the two suicide bombers at the airport.

– Telephone alibi –

The inquiry into the attacks has been dogged by accusations that Belgium missed a series of leads in cracking down on a jihadist network linked to the Brussels bombings as well as the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Adding to the storm, Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said Tuesday that he regretted the release of the man identified by Belgian media as Faycal Cheffou, who claimed to be a freelance journalist.

Hinting at suspicions that the man was a jihadist recruiter, he told French media: “There is a very thin line between an agitated radical and a radical recruiter, and in this case the judge probably didn’t want to cross that line.”

The man’s lawyer Olivier Martins told RTBF television his client was let go because he had an alibi, based on telephone analysis, that showed he was at home at the time of the attacks.

– The Dutch connection –

Under pressure at home and abroad over an apparent series of missed chances, the Belgian government has admitted mistakes were made.

In the most damning revelation, Turkey has accused Belgium of ignoring warnings from Ankara after it deported airport suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui as a “terrorist fighter” last year following his arrest near the Syrian border.

Two Belgian ministers offered to resign last week after the Turkish link emerged.

In a development sure to raise fresh questions about whether enough was done to prevent the carnage, a Dutch minister also revealed that the FBI shared information with the Netherlands about El Bakraoui and his brother Khalid — the metro bomber — six days before the attacks.

Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said the report contained “notification of Ibrahim El Bakraoui and his brother Khalid’s criminal backgrounds and Khalid’s terrorist background”.

The following day “the issue came up during bilateral contact between the Dutch and Belgian police,” said Van der Steur.

Raids and arrests in Belgium, France and the Netherlands since the Brussels bombings have exposed a complex web of jihadist cells, underscoring the need for better European coordination in the fight against terrorism.

Dutch prosecutors said Tuesday that a French suspect — arrested in Rotterdam at the weekend in connection with a foiled plot to attack France — intends to fight his extradition to France.