Bomb-hit Brussels airport to reopen on Sunday with security boost

Brussels Airport CEO Arnaud Feist gives a press conference regarding the reopening of Brussels Airport, in Zaventem, on April 2, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Brussels Airport said it will partially reopen on Sunday, 12 days after it was hit by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suicide blasts, as Belgian prosecutors charged a third suspect with terrorism over a foiled plot to attack France.

The first three "symbolic flights" will take off for Faro, Turin and Athens from Sunday afternoon, Brussels Airport chief executive Arnaud Feist told reporters, and travellers will have to undergo strict new security controls before check-in.

"These flights are the first hopeful sign from an airport that is standing up straight after a cowardly attack," Feist said.

Passengers will have to make use of a temporary check-in facility as the airport's departure hall was wrecked in the March 22 blasts that also struck a metro station in Brussels, killing 32 people.

The attacks came just four days after Belgium arrested the prime suspect in last November's Paris terror assaults and close links have emerged between the attack cells.

European authorities, under pressure to crack down on a tangled web of cross-border militant cells, have carried out a number of raids and arrests since then, several of them linked to a foiled plot to attack France.

In the latest development, Belgian prosecutors Saturday charged a third suspect with "participation in the activities of a terrorist group" over the plot.

The man was named only as 35-year-old Y.A., who was arrested in the centre of Brussels on Friday.

The main plot suspect is French national Reda Kriket, who was arrested in France last week after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home near Paris.

Brussels Airport had on Thursday already said it was "technically ready" to resume partial services after testing the tent-like new departure hall.

But police unions held up the restart, threatening to go on strike unless additional checks were introduced. A deal with the government was reached late on Friday, clearing the way for flights to resume.

One of the biggest changes will be that only passengers with tickets and ID documents will be allowed into the makeshift departure hall, and their bags will be checked before entering. Once inside, passengers will still undergo the usual security checks.

The airport will initially only be accessible by car. Vehicles will be screened and subject to spot checks, while extra police and soldiers will be on patrol throughout the airport zone.

The first three flights to Faro, Athens, Turin will be operated by Brussels Airlines, Feist said.

The number of flights will be increased in coming days, although the airport will be only be able to work at 20 per cent capacity using the temporary facilities, handling 800 to 1,000 passengers an hour.

Feist has said it could take months to return to normal.

The 12-day closure of a major European travel hub has wreaked havoc on the travel industry, triggering a drop in tourist arrivals and forcing thousands of passengers to be rerouted to other airports in and around Belgium.

Tensions, meanwhile, rose again in the Belgian capital with police out in force to ward off trouble after local authorities banned a planned anti-Islam rally and any counter-protests.

Several hundred people tried to gather in defiance of the ban in the troubled neighbourhood of Molenbeek, while smaller far-left groups were dispersed from a central Brussels square that has become a memorial to the March 22 victims.

Police said they briefly detained over 100 people but only two were kept in custody. One of them was a driver who ploughed through a police line in Molenbeek, running over and injuring a female passer-by.

Calm had returned to both areas by Saturday evening.

The authorities were determined to prevent a repeat of last weekend, when riot police fired water cannon to disperse far-right football hooligans who disrupted mourners at the makeshift shrine to the attack victims.

Brussels has been on edge since the Nov 13 Paris gun and suicide bomb attacks which killed 130 people after it emerged several of the militants came from Brussels.

The sole surviving Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested in Molenbeek on March 18, after four months on the run as Europe's most wanted man.

He denies having any prior knowledge of the Brussels attacks.

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