Brussels to mark bombings anniversary with defiance

This file photo taken on March 22, 2016 shows policemen standing guard at the entrance of a security perimeter set near Maalbeek - Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels, after a blast at this station near the EU institutions caused deaths and injuries.
This file photo taken on March 22, 2016 shows policemen standing guard at the entrance of a security perimeter set near Maalbeek - Maelbeek metro station, in Brussels, after a blast at this station near the EU institutions caused deaths and injuries.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium on Wednesday (March 22) marks the first anniversary of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) bombings in Brussels with ceremonies showing that the heart of Europe stands defiant.

King Philippe is set to lead a minute of silence at both Zaventem Airport and Maalbeek metro station where suicide bombers killed 32 people and wounded more than 320.

Applause is then set to ring out during a “minute of noise” as trains, trams and buses come to a halt in memory of the victims of the country’s worst ever terror attacks.

A year on, Belgium remains on high alert with troops patrolling the streets and warnings of fresh risks from ISIS militants  returning home from Iraq and Syria.

Investigators say the blasts were carried out by a network that was also behind the November 2015 Paris attacks, and acted on orders from the ISIS high command.

“It is possible that we keep soldiers on the streets – I am absolutely unable to tell you what situation we will be in, in one month, three months, or six months,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said on RTL television.

While tightly guarded, Wednesday’s ceremonies will focus on bringing Belgian society together, from royalty to schoolchildren, and from people of all faiths.

At 7.58am (2.58pm Singapore), King Philippe and Queen Mathilde will lead victims, family members and rescuers in a service of remembrance at the airport for the 16 people killed by suicide bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui.

The royal couple will then travel by the underground to Maalbeek in the city’s European quarter where Bakraoui’s brother Khalid blew himself up on a crowded train at 9.11am, killing a further 16 people.

At both sites there will be minute of silence.

But afterwards, metro staff will hold a “minute of noise”, in which commuters will be invited to take part “to show that they do not forget but they will stay standing against hate and terror”, the Brussels public transport company Stib said.

RESISTANCE AND DIGNITY 

The king and queen will inaugurate a new steel memorial at the heart of the European Union institutions based in Brussels.

Later, children from schools in Molenbeek, the largely Muslim area where many of the attackers hailed from, will meet victims of the attacks in a show of solidarity.

Three marches by Brussels residents will then meet at the Place de La Bourse which was transformed into an impromptu, flower-strewn memorial after the attacks last year.

Finally Brussels’ most famous landmark – the Manneken Pis statue of a little boy – will be dressed up in a fireman’s outfit to hail the efforts of rescue services.

“Over the years Manneken Pis has been stolen, dismounted and broken into pieces. But he is still there and is for us a witness of resistance and dignity,” said Tanguy du Bus de Warnaffe, the head of the Brussels fire service.

The shock of the attacks was compounded by accusations afterwards that Belgium had become a “failed state” which was unable to track down the cell behind the Brussels bombings and also the Paris attacks in which 130 people died.

Questions abounded about whether deep divisions between Belgium’s French and Flemish speaking communities had allowed growing radicalism to slip under the radar.

Fugitive Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam was shot and arrested in a police raid in Molenbeek on March 18, 2016, raising speculation about how he had managed to return to Belgium and remain undetected for nearly four months.

His arrest apparently panicked the rest of the cell into changing their plans and, instead of carrying out a new attack on France, they targeted the airport and metro in Brussels just four days later, investigators say.

A third airport attacker whose device failed to go off, Mohamed Abrini, dubbed the “Man in the Hat” because of what security footage showed him wearing, was arrested – again in central Brussels – nearly a month after the attacks.

All the suspects were linked to an ISIS cell led by Paris ringleader and Syria veteran Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a man of Belgian-Moroccan origin. Airport bomber Laachraoui was meanwhile identified as chief bombmaker for the Paris attacks.