Brussels airport delays reopening as Belgium lowers attacks toll to 32

The facade of the departure hall of Brussels Airport in Zaventem in Zaventem on March 29, 2016.
The facade of the departure hall of Brussels Airport in Zaventem in Zaventem on March 29, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Bomb-damaged Brussels airport said it would not reopen on Wednesday (March 30) after all following drills to test resuming partial services, as Belgium lowered the death toll from last week's attacks to 32.

The airport has been closed since twin bombings wrecked the departure hall exactly a week ago, in coordinated suicide attacks that were claimed by the Islamic State group and which also struck 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.

Earlier Tuesday, hundreds of employees returned to Zaventem airport to take part in a large-scale test run to determine if services could partially resume from Wednesday.

Those hopes were dashed.

"The airport will also be closed for passenger flights into and out of Brussels Airport tomorrow Wednesday 30 March," the airport said on Twitter.

Airport spokeswoman Anke Fransen said the authorities were now reviewing the results of the test run.

"We hope to reach a decision on a partial re-opening of the airport in the course of (Wednesday) morning," she added.

Brussels Airport chief executive Arnaud Feist had earlier warned that it could take "months" for the airport to be fully operational again.

As Brussels struggles to get back on its feet, criticism of Belgium's handling of the case has mounted after the sole suspect to be charged over the attacks was freed 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.

With Faycal C's release on Monday, the hunt was back on for the so-called "man in the hat" seen in CCTV footage next to the two suicide bombers at Zaventem airport.

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.

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

Under pressure at home and abroad over an apparent series of missed chances in keeping tabs on criminals linked to jihadist networks, the Belgian government has admitted mistakes were made.

In the most damning revelation, Turkey accused Belgium of ignoring warnings from Ankara after it deported airport suicide bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui as a "terrorist fighter" last year after arresting him 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 Brussels 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.

"The radical background of both the brothers was discussed," he told parliament.

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 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.