Under-fire Belgium on hunt again for fugitive

Belgian soldiers and police securing routes to Brussels airport yesterday. The airport's chief executive Arnaud Feist said it could take months for it to be fully operational again.
Belgian soldiers and police securing routes to Brussels airport yesterday. The airport's chief executive Arnaud Feist said it could take months for it to be fully operational again.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Authorities slammed after releasing airport bombing suspect over lack of evidence

BRUSSELS • Criticism of Belgium's handling of the case of a fugitive bomber mounted after the sole suspect to be charged over the metro and airport attacks was freed for lack of evidence linking him to the carnage.

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

With Cheffou's release on Monday after four days of detention, the hunt was back on for the so-called "man in the hat" seen in CCTV footage next to the two Islamic State in Iraq and Syria suicide bombers at Zaventem airport.

A total of 35 people died in the attacks at the airport and Maalbeek metro station on March 22, with 340 injured, 96 of whom remain in hospital.

Many foreign nationals were among the victims and nearly all the fatalities have now been identified. The Indian government on Tuesday confirmed that a 31-year- old Indian man was on the metro train blown up by a suicide bomber.

The Belgian government has admitted mistakes were made after Turkey accused it of ignoring warnings from Ankara that it had deported airport suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui as a "terrorist fighter" last year after arresting him near the Syrian border.

While Belgian authorities were quick to identify all three bombers, the inquiry has been dogged by accusations that Belgium missed a series of leads in cracking down on a terrorist network linked to the Brussels attacks, as well as the November 13 Paris massacres that killed 130 people.

Adding to the recriminations, Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said 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 terrorist 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 that his client had an alibi.

"He gave an alibi based on telephone analysis which showed that he was at home at the time of the attacks," Mr Martins said.

He said there was no forensic evidence tying his client to the scene, and said Cheffou had been charged on the basis of testimony by a taxi driver, who drove the suspected bombers to the airport.

The Belgian government has admitted mistakes were made after Turkey accused it of ignoring warnings from Ankara that it had deported airport suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui as a "terrorist fighter" last year after arresting him near the Syrian border.

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

Meanwhile, Brussels airport, closed since the blasts wrecked the departure hall, announced a trial reopening today. A temporary check-in facility has been set up to cater to 800 passengers per hour compared with the normal flow of 5,000 per hour. Passengers will be subject to extra security checks. Priority will be given to Schengen-area European flights and flights to Africa where Brussels Airlines, Belgium's national airline, will be allocated a large part of the limited capacity.

Brussels Airport chief executive Arnaud Feist told L'Echo daily it could take "months" for the airport to be fully operational again after two suicide bombers destroyed the departure terminal.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline 'Under-fire Belgium on hunt again for fugitive'. Print Edition | Subscribe