BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - Belgium’s federal prosecutor confirmed on Wednesday (March 23) that two brothers carried out suicide attacks at Brussels airport and on a metro train that killed 31 people and wounded 270.
Ibrahim El Bakraoui blew himself up in the check-in hall of Zaventem airport while Khalid El Bakraoui attacked a metro train at Maalbeek station near the EU headquarters, Frederic van Leeuw told a news conference.
Prior to the conference, Belgian media on Wednesday (March 23) withdrew reports that a man arrested in the capital was Brussels attacks suspect Najim Laachraoui.
“Arrested man in Anderlecht is not Najim Laachraoui,” the Derniere Heure newspaper tweeted, while the RTL broadcaster said that the “suspect arrested in Anderlecht was not Najim Laachraoui in the end.”
Both media outlets had earlier in the day said that Laachraoui had been arrested in the Anderlecht district of Brussels, adding that he was the third man pictured in airport CCTV footage alongside two suicide bombers who blew themselves up on Tuesday.
Belgian investigators said under the alias of Soufiane Kayal, Laachraoui travelled to Hungary in September with Abdeslam, who is the last known survivor of the 10 Paris attackers. Lachraoui is also believed to have travelled to Syria in February 2013. Traces of DNA from the 24-year-old were found on the explosives used in the gun and suicide attacks in Paris, a source close to the French investigation said earlier this week.
Belgian prosecutors on Monday said Laachraoui’s DNA had been found at an apartment in the Schaarbeek district of Brussels where bomb making equipment and one of Abdeslam’s fingerprints had been found in December. His DNA was also found at an apartment used by the Paris attackers in Auvelais, near the central Belgian city of Namur, which he had rented under a false name.
The brothers were also being sought for links with key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, RTBF said, citing police sources.
Khalid, under a false name, had rented the flat in the Forest borough of the Belgian capital where police killed a gunman in a raid last week, RTBF said.
Investigators found after that raid an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) flag, an assault rifle, detonators and a fingerprint of Paris attacks prime suspect Abdeslam, who was arrested three days later.
Both brothers have criminal records, but have not been linked by the police to terrorism until now, RTBF said.
The blasts claimed by the Syrian-based militants sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and transit systems, and drawing an outpouring of solidarity.
“We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world,” said US President Barack Obama.
The Pope urged the world to unite in denouncing the Brussels attacks, saying those responsible for the bloodshed had been blinded by “cruel fundamentalism”.
“I appeal to all those of good faith to join together in unanimous condemnation of this abominable cruelty which causes only death, terror and horror,” the pope said on Wednesday at his weekly general audience in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Brussels police mounted an operation in the north of the city, turning up another bomb, an ISIS flag and bomb-making chemicals in an apartment in the borough of Schaerbeek.
Local media said authorities had followed a tip from a taxi driver who believed he may have driven the bombers to the airport.
Investigators said they were focusing on a man in a hat who was caught on CCTV pushing a laden baggage trolley at the airport with two others they believed were the bombers.
An unused explosive device was later found at the airport and a man was seen running away from the terminal after the explosions.
Security experts believed the blasts, which killed about 20 on a metro train running through the area that houses European Union institutions, were probably in preparation before Friday’s arrest of locally based French national Salah Abdeslam, 26, whom prosecutors accuse of a key role in the Nov 13 Paris attacks.
He was caught and has been speaking to investigators after a shootout at an apartment in the south of the city a week ago, after which another ISIS flag and explosives were found. It was unclear whether he had knowledge of the new attack or whether accomplices may have feared police were closing in.
ISIS said in a statement that “caliphate soldiers, strapped with suicide vests and carrying explosive devices and machineguns” struck Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station.
It was not clear, however, that the attackers used vests. The suspects were photographed pushing bags on trolleys, and witnesses said many of the airport dead and wounded were hit mostly in the legs, possibly indicating blasts at floor level.
Brussels, home to the European Union and Nato headquarters, has long been a centre of Islamist militancy. Some 300 Belgians are estimated to have fought with Islamists in Syria, making the country of 11 million the leading European exporter of foreign fighters and a focus of concern in France and other neighbours over its security capabilities.
“What we had feared has come to pass,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, vowing to face down the threat.
On Wednesday, he will host a prearranged visit by French Premier Manuel Valls, who declared: “We are at war.”
Reviving arguments over Belgian policies following the Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed in an operation apparently organised from Brussels, French Finance Minister Michel Sapin spoke of “naivete” on the part of “certain leaders” in holding back from security crackdowns on Muslim communities.
A lawmaker from Mr Michel’s party, Mr Didier Ducarme, hit back on French television. He said comments like Sapin’s “are starting to seriously irritate me” and noted it was a France-based gunman who killed four at Brussels’ Jewish Museum in 2014.
Mr Michel, who locked down the Belgian capital for days in fear of a follow-up attack after the November bloodshed in Paris, has dramatically increased the budget of security forces.
But experts say tracking militants among the country’s half-million Muslims, 5 per cent of the population, has been hampered by political divisions and a lack of resources.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Europeans had “allowed (security arrangements) to slip”.
The departures hall of the airport, similar to arrangements across Europe, was open to the public, with no screening of identities or baggage.
Citizens of the United States, Spain and Sweden were among the injured, their governments said. US broadcaster ABC said nine Americans were hurt in the Brussels bombings.
The US State Department, saying that “terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe,” warned US citizens in Europe to avoid crowded places and be vigilant when in public or using public transit.
Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump said torture could be useful to extract information before attacks:
“Waterboarding would be fine. If they can expand the laws, I would do a lot more than waterboarding,” the billionaire businessman said of an interrogation technique practice banned by Mr Obama. “You have to get the information from these people.”
Abdeslam, who prosecutors say confessed to being the 10th Paris attacker but failed to emulate his suicide bomber brother, appears to have spent four months undetected in Brussels, aided by a network of friends and petty criminal contacts.
After questioning him, police issued a wanted notice for Najim Laachraou.
A lockdown imposed after the attacks was eased and public transport was due to reopen, at least in part, on Wednesday, although the airport will be closed on Wednesday and Thursday, tweeted Brussels Airport CEO Arnaud Feist.
Austrian Horst Pilger, waiting on a flight with his family, said his children had thought fireworks were going off, but he instantly knew an assault was under way.
“My wife and I both thought ‘bomb’. We looked into each other’s eyes,” he said. “Five or 10 seconds later, there was a major, major, major blast in close vicinity. It was massive.”
Mr Pilger, who works at the European Commission, said the whole ceiling collapsed and smoke poured through the terminal.
Passengers on the metro line running under the rue de la Loi connecting the EU quarter with central Brussels felt shockwaves and then smoke when the bomb tore through a carriage of a train leaving Maelbeek station. The metro car was totally devastated.
Although Europeans have been used to urban guerrilla attacks for decades, some bloodier than Tuesday’s events in Brussels and none as costly as Al Qaeda’s Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the wide reach of Islamist violence, striking notably London and Madrid as well as Paris, has unnerved many.
In an outpouring of sympathy across the continent, Paris’Eiffel Tower was lit up with the red, gold and black colours of the Belgian flag.
The Twitter hashtag #JeSuisBruxelles was trending as were cartoons on the theme of the city’s irreverent emblem, Manneken Pis, a small fountain statue of a boy urinating. In the images, he is cheekily relieving himself on a Kalashnikov.