Belgium attacks suspect sent to Netherlands by Turkey in 2015

Ibrahim El Bakraoui is pictured in Turkey in a 2015 image made available March 24, 2016.
Ibrahim El Bakraoui is pictured in Turkey in a 2015 image made available March 24, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch officials on Thursday confirmed that one of the Brussels airport suicide bombers was expelled by Turkey and sent to the Netherlands last year, but stressed he had been unknown to Dutch law enforcement.

"The Turkish authorities requested Ibrahim El Bakraoui to leave the country and put him on a flight from Istanbul to Amsterdam on July 14, 2015," Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur said in a letter to the Dutch parliament.

"He was not under suspicion in the Netherlands," Van der Steur stressed, adding Ankara had not provided any explanation for why Bakraoui was being sent to Holland.

Belgian ministers have come under fire for intelligence failings over Tuesday's Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide attacks in which 31 people died.

Bakraoui blew himself up at Brussels airport along with another attacker, while his brother Khalid set off a suicide bomb at a Brussels metro station.

Belgian authorities are still searching for a third assailant who left his bomb-filled bag at the airport before fleeing the scene, and are hunting a second metro suspect.

Pressure has mounted on Belgium's government over claims it ignored the expulsion of Bakraoui from Turkey in 2015 as a "foreign terrorist fighter", and the interior and justice ministers have both offered their resignations although these were rejected by the country's prime minister.

The Dutch justice minister will meet with lawmakers on Tuesday after the long Easter weekend to debate the issue.

"He was not registered in our relevant databases. He has never been arrested in the Netherlands," the minister insisted.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday said Turkish authorities had detained the attacker in June last year in Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border, and then deported the "foreign terrorist fighter" to the Netherlands at his request.

Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said he was aware the man had been sent to the Netherlands from Turkey, but denied he had been flagged as a possible terrorist.

Erdogan, however, said the Belgian authorities had failed to confirm the suspect's links to terrorism "despite our warnings" following his expulsion.