BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgian authorities decided on Thursday to extradite Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam to France, as bomb-damaged Brussels airport said it was ready to reopen although flights would not resume immediately.
Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect in the November terror attacks in Paris which killed 130 people, was arrested in Brussels on March 18 after four months on the run as Europe’s most wanted man.
Four days after his arrest, the Belgian capital was struck by coordinated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group bombings at the airport and a metro station carried out by suicide attackers with links to Abdeslam and the Paris attacks cell.
Abdeslam’s lawyer said that his 26-year-old client had agreed to be transferred to France under a European arrest warrant, clearing the way for a fast-track extradition.
“What Salah Abdeslam wants to make known is that he wants to cooperate with the French authorities. These are the words he wants to make known,” lawyer Cedric Moisse told reporters in Brussels.
Abdeslam’s arrest was considered a rare success in Belgium’s anti-terror fight, although he was found within a short distance of his family home in the Molenbeek district of the capital. He has refused to talk since the Brussels bombings.
“As Salah Abdeslam had declared to agree to be transferred to France, a federal magistrate took his formal declaration today... The transfer is possible,” the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement.
“Belgian and French authorities will now consider jointly on how to proceed further in the execution of the transfer,” the statement added.
“Unless there are exceptional circumstances,” the transfer to France will happen “within 10 days,” according to the French justice minister, Jean-Jacques Urvoas.
Belgian investigators will still be allowed to question Abdeslam in France.
He is believed to have acted as a logistics coordinator for the Paris attacks and has told investigators he was meant to carry out a suicide bombing at the Stade de France stadium but backed out.
Brussels airport, closed since its departure hall was wrecked in the attacks, said it had received the go-ahead from fire services and the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority “for a partial restart of passenger flights”.
“The airport is thus technically ready for a restart,” it said in a statement.
“However, the authorities have yet to take a formal decision on the restart date. Until Friday evening, no passenger flights will take place at Brussels Airport.”
In a bid to end the travel chaos caused by the closure of an important European air hub, hundreds of staff staged drills this week to test temporary check-in facilities as well as enhanced security measures.
Under the temporary arrangements, Zaventem airport would be able to handle 800 departing passengers per hour – around 20 percent of normal capacity, it said.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said “we must reopen the airport as soon as possible, it is important for our economy and our image overseas”.
However, he added that his first priority as the government “is to ensure that there are enough security guarantees in place”.
Adding to the airport’s woes, police unions Thursday threatened to go on strike if security measures are not improved ahead of the reopening.
Close links have emerged between the Paris and Brussels attackers, exposing a tangled web of cross-border extremist cells and triggering a series of raids and arrests in several European countries.
In the latest operation on Thursday, police and soldiers searched a wooded area in Marke near the town of Courtrai in western Belgium, with authorities saying the raid was linked to a thwarted plot to attack France.
The main suspect in that case, Reda Kriket, has been charged in France with membership of a terrorist organisation after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home.
The joint French-Belgian operation by masked police and armed soldiers along a busy motorway lasted for several hours but Belgian prosecutors said no weapons or explosives were found and no arrests were made.
Belgian-born French citizen Abdeslam, 26, has refused to answer questions since the day after his arrest. Before that, he was questioned for three hours solely about the Paris attacks – and not about possible further terror plots.
Abdeslam has connections to at least two of the Brussels bombers. Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew himself up at the metro, rented a flat in Brussels where Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found.
One of the two airport bombers, Najim Laachraoui, drove to Hungary with Abdeslam in September.
Belgium is still searching for a suspected third attacker, the so-called “man in the hat” seen in surveillance images alongside the two airport bombers.
With no suspects in custody over the attacks, police on Thursday appealed for possible images taken by members of the public.