Under-fire Belgian police mount manhunt for two attacks suspects

by Danny Kemp and Lachlan Carmichael A grieving Belgium on Thursday hunted two fugitive suspects after bombings that struck at the very heart of Europe, as security authorities faced mounting criticism over the country's worst-ever attacks.

With growing evidence of links between Tuesday’s bombings and similar attacks that struck France in November, key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam insisted he was unaware of plans to strike the Belgian capital.

Thousands of Belgians were expected to observe another minute of silence on the third and final day of mourning for the 31 people from all over the world killed in the attacks, while doctors battled to save scores more critically injured.

Belgian authorities faced growing pressure to do more to tackle the Islamic State menace threatening the continent, even as they scrambled to track down two more men over the attacks on Brussels airport and the metro.

Brussels was on maximum security alert with soldiers in camouflage standing guard outside embassies and government offices and underground rail services cut between 7:00 pm and 7:00 am, forcing commuters to scramble for the last trains home.

Abdeslam’s lawyer Sven Mary said Thursday his client now did not want to fight extradition following his arrest in the Belgian capital on Friday, four months after the IS attacks in Paris in which 130 died.

“Salah Abdeslam told me that he wishes to leave for France as soon as possible,” he said.

Abdeslam is said to have links to brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, who carried out suicide attacks on the airport and the metro, with Khalid said to have rented out a flat used by the Paris team and another that was raided in the hunt for Salah.

Asked if Abdeslam, the last known survivor of the cell of 10 men who carried out the Paris attacks, had prior knowledge of Tuesday’s assault on Brussels, Mary replied: “He didn’t know it”.

But he added that Abdeslam had stopped cooperating with investigators since the attacks.

– ‘Why?’ –

Belgian authorities are now hunting a man with a large bag seen talking to Khalid El Bakraoui on CCTV footage at Maalbeek station, who then did not get on to the train, police sources told AFP.

A huge manhunt is already under way for a third attacker at Brussels airport, who was seen on security footage with Ibrahim El Bakraoui and a man identified as Najim Laachraoui, but whose bomb did not go off.

The attacks have stunned Brussels, home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, and candles, Belgian flags and teddy bears were piling up in the central Place de la Bourse with tributes left to the victims of the attacks.

In an unprecedented homage, Belgium’s federal and regional parliaments will lead a national minute’s silence in the presence of King Philippe at 1300 GMT, and there will also be gatherings at Zaventem and in towns around the country.

Outside the bombed metro station of Maalbeek, just a few hundred metres from key EU institutions, a banner read “why?” in English, French and German.

Hundreds of airport staff and their families carried candles and flowers in a silent march and vigil near the shattered terminal that will stay closed until Saturday.

“We are all one big family. The whole world is with us and we see that we can count on one another but I am very sad, very sad to see such a thing happen,” said one staff member who gave his name as Jonathan.

Questions were being asked of under-fire European security authorities after it emerged that the three bombers were known to police and that Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been deported from Turkey as a “foreign terrorist fighter”.

Belgium’s Justice Minister Koen Geens denied however that the 29-year-old Belgian citizen had been flagged as a possible terrorist, saying he was “not known here for terrorism” and was a “common law criminal out on parole.”

EU justice and interior ministers will convene later Thursday in Brussels for an emergency meeting to show “solidarity” to Belgium and work out a plan to address the threat to Europe posed by jihadists.

The continent is already fighting crises on several fronts, from its worst refugee crisis since World War II to the possibility of Britain leaving the bloc, and leaders have vowed to combat terrorism “with all means necessary”.

– Victims from around the world –

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the attacks, the worst in the country’s history, had killed or wounded people of around 40 nationalities, with doctors saying they were treating injuries “seen in war.”

Very few of the dead have been formally identified but stories were emerging of lucky escapes and tragic ill fortune of people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A young German couple headed for a New York holiday were among the victims of the Brussels airport attack, which left the wife missing and the man in a coma, the Bild daily reported.

It identified the couple by their first names as Jennifer, 29, a sales employee, and Lars, a 30-year-old hospital nurse, and said they had looked forward to the US trip after they married last year.

Adelma Marina Tapia Ruiz, a 37-year-old Peruvian woman, was killed by the airport bomb but her two young daughters and husband survived because the twin girls had run off and the father was chasing after them.

Doctor Muriel Brugmans, who tried to save her life in hospital, said on Facebook: “Tonight I’m thinking very much about my patient, mother of two adorable little girls. She was… so worried for her daughters.”

The health ministry said Wednesday that the number of people injured had climbed from 270 to 300, 61 of whom were in critical condition.

“It’s war,” said Jacques Creteur, head of the intensive care unit at Erasme. “It’s the kind of trauma seen in war.”


© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse


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