BRUSSELS (REUTERS) - Mohamed Abrini, wanted for November’s Islamic State attacks in Paris, was among five people arrested in Brussels on Friday, Belgian prosecutors said, adding that he was also involved tied to last month’s Brussels bombings.
They said they were checking whether Abrini, a 31-year-old Belgian, was the “man in the hat” seen on security footage at Brussels airport on March 22 with two suicide bombers. Belgium’s public broadcasters said it was “more than likely” he was.
The arrests mark a signal success for Belgian security services, which have faced fierce criticism at home and abroad since Brussels-based militants organised the attacks that killed 130 in Paris on Nov 13 and 32 at home four months later.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon, who offered to resign over the failure to arrest one of the suicide bombers months ago, tweeted congratulations to those involved in the arrests.
But there was no change in the national security alert level and Jambon added: “The struggle against terrorism goes on.”
The arrests came a day after police issued new images and detail on the “man in the hat”.
They follow the arrest in Brussels on March 18 of a key surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam. He was seen driving with Abrini towards Paris two days before the attacks in the French capital.
Four days after Abdeslam was arrested, the brothers Brahim and Khalid El Bakraoui and a third local man, Najim Laachraoui, set off bombs that killed 32 people at Brussels airport and on a metro line running under European Union institutions.
Another suspect held on Friday may be a man seen with Khalid Bakraoui at a metro station shortly before Bakraoui blew himself up on a train on the same line downtown.
Prosecutors named him as Osama K, adding he had used the false name Naim al-Hamed. Prosecutors said he had also been caught on CCTV buying holdalls at a downtown mall that were later used in the Brussels bombings.
Osama K. was identified by police near Ulm in Germany some weeks before the Paris attacks in a car rented by Salah Abdeslam, prosecutors said. They did not confirm reports that he was a Swede named Osama Krayem, a former fighter in Syria who may have returned to Europe along with other militants among refugees who reached the Greek island of Leros in September.
Abrini was arrested in the borough of Anderlecht, local media said, next to the western district of Molenbeek, which has been at the heart of Belgium’s troubles with Islamist militants.
He had been on Europe’s most wanted list since being seen on a motorway service station CCTV video driving with Abdeslam towards Paris from Belgium. The car they drove was used two days later in the attacks, in which Abdeslam’s elder brother was a suicide bomber.
Abrini and Abdeslam had also rented an apartment used by some of the Paris suicide attackers, prosecutors said. Abrini’s fingerprints and DNA were found in two Brussels apartments, including the one from where three men, including the two bombers, took a taxi to the airport on March 22. It was later found to have been used as a bomb-making factory.
The man in the hat left the airport shortly after the twin suicide bombings and was tracked on CCTV for several miles into the city centre.
On Thursday, investigators released new video footage of him and urged people to look for his discarded coat.
He had been difficult to identify from the footage, which showed him pushing a laden luggage trolley alongside the two men who blew themselves up with similar bags.
A third bomb was later found abandoned at the airport.