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Belgium hunting third suspect caught on film – French PM leads calls for a ‘strong European response’

BRUSSELS: People gather to pay tribute to the victims of the Brussels attacks on the Place de la Bourse (Beursplein) in central Brussels yesterday two days after a triple bomb attack.—AFP
BRUSSELS: People gather to pay tribute to the victims of the Brussels attacks on the Place de la Bourse (Beursplein) in central Brussels yesterday two days after a triple bomb attack.—AFP

BRUSSELS: Belgian police were yesterday hunting for a third man filmed with two Islamic State suicide bombers at Brussels airport as evidence piled up that the same jihadist network was involved in the deadly Paris attacks last November.

With pressure mounting on Europe to improve cooperation against terrorism, EU interior and justice ministers were to hold emergency talks on a joint response to Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels, which killed at least 31 people and injured hundreds.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls led calls for a “strong European response”, but officials say many states, including France, withhold their most cherished data despite a mantra of willingness to share intelligence.

The chief surviving suspect linking the Paris and Brussels attacks, French national Salah Abdeslam, 26, arrested in the Belgian capital last week, was remanded in custody until April 7 with two other suspects. The public prosecutor said Abdeslam, who is in detention in a prison in Bruges in western Belgium, did not appear in person. His lawyer, Sven Mary, who requested the adjournment, said Abdeslam was no longer opposed to being extradited to France.

“Salah Abdeslam has asked me to inform you that he wishes to leave for France as quickly as possible,” Mary told reporters at the courthouse, saying his client “wants to explain himself”.

Mary said Abdeslam was not aware of the plan to attack Brussels. Turkey’s president criticised Belgium for failing to track Brahim El Bakraoui, a convicted armed robber whom it expelled last year and who blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday an hour before his brother Khalid, a fellow convict, killed about 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city centre.

A Turkish government official said Brahim El Bakraoui was deported twice from Turkey in July and August after re-entering the country. His initial deportation was based on police suspicion, conveyed to the Belgian and Dutch authorities, that he was a foreign militant fighter, another official said.

Since he had committed no offence in Turkey he was deported to the country of his choice, the Netherlands. Belgium’s inner security cabinet was meeting yesterday to discuss the matter. Opposition lawmakers demanded an explanation in parliament. Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign yesterday over a failure to track militants.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Prime Minister Charles Michel had asked him to stay on. “In time of war, you cannot leave the field,” Jambon told VTM television. Justice Minister Koen Geens would also stay on, a ministry spokesperson said.

Security sources told Belgian media the other suicide bomber at the airport was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed by Brussels-based militants.

The third suspect captured on airport security cameras pushing a baggage trolley into the departures hall alongside Laachraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui is now the target of a police manhunt. He has not been named. The bespectacled man wearing a cream jacket and a black hat ran out of the terminal, federal prosecutors said, and a third suitcase bomb, the biggest of the three, exploded later as bomb disposal experts were clearing the area, causing no casualties.

Public broadcaster RTBF said investigators now believed a second bomber was involved in the metro attack close to European Commission headquarters. The man was spotted on security cameras carrying a heavy bag, but his identity was unknown and it was not clear if he had died or escaped.

A computer-generated image showed a young man with hollow cheeks, a tiny goatee beard and thick black eyebrows.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the bloodshed in the capital of the European Union, not far from NATO headquarters, showed Washington’s European allies should do more to fight Islamic State alongside American efforts in the Middle East. Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticised the lack of cooperation among European countries, saying the EU lacked a system for exchanging air passenger data or a joint intelligence centre to share information.

Opinion polls suggest support in Britain for leaving the European Union in a referendum set for June 23 is gaining ground since the Brussels attacks, which fanned security fears that some politicians have linked to immigration. US Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has suggested torture could be used on militant suspects, said he expected Britain would vote to leave the EU because of concerns about high levels of migration.

Casualties from Tuesday’s attacks came from about 40 nations, drawing an international outpouring of support for Brussels during three days of mourning. Washington said Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Belgium today.

Flemish public broadcaster VRT said the elder Bakraoui brother had been released from a Belgian prison in 2014 after serving four years of a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. He skipped two probation meetings last June and was ordered to return to prison in August, but police could not find him. The case highlighted Belgium’s problem with some 300 locals who have fought in Syria, the biggest contingent from Europe in relation to its national population of 11 million.

At the time of the Paris attacks, its security service had fewer than 600 staff. The government has since raised spending on police and intelligence.

Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, leading efforts to counter international criticism of Belgian policies toward containing violent extremists among its Muslim community, which makes up about 5 percent of the population, said security had to be balanced with civil rights. Brussels airport will remain shut until at least Saturday, with the departure hall sealed off by investigators. Travellers on the busy Easter weekend were diverted to Antwerp, Liege and the northern French city of Lille.

Brussels Airlines advised passengers to arrive up to three hours before their flight because of security measures. There were long lines outside the terminal in Liege as people waited in the rain to put baggage through new outdoor scanners, VRT reported. -Reuters

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