BRUSSELS, Belgium (15th UPDATE) – A series of explosions claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) group ripped through Brussels airport and a metro train on Tuesday, March 22, killing 31 people in the latest attacks to bring bloody carnage to the heart of Europe.
Two huge blasts, at least one of which prosecutors said was likely caused by a suicide bomber, rocked the check-in hall at Zaventem Airport, strewing the scene with blood and mangled bodies and sending hundreds of terrified travellers fleeing in terror.
The fact that extremists were able to hit high-profile targets in Brussels, Europe’s symbolic capital, just months after ISIS killed 130 people in Paris, will raise fresh questions about the continent’s ability to cope with the terror threat.
Around 270 people were wounded in Tuesday’s bloodshed, which came just 4 days after the dramatic arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam – the prime suspect in the Paris attacks – after 4 months on the run.
Belgian authorities had been on alert after Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, told investigators he had been planning an attack on Brussels.
An online news agency affiliated with IS said the group was behind the attacks.
“Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital Brussels, a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State,” the Aamaq news agency said.
Hundreds of flights and trains were cancelled as security across Europe was tightened after the bombings, which Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel branded “blind, violent and cowardly”.
“This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Michel said. His spokesman announced 3 days of national mourning.
Three suspects wanted
Shortly after the airport blasts hit at around 8 am (0700 GMT), a third explosion rocked Maalbeek metro station, in the heart of the city’s EU quarter, as rush-hour commuters were making their way to work. (READ: On the scene: Blood, panic as Brussels comes under attack)
There are fears more suspects could still be at large in Brussels, home to the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders warned.
Belgian authorities published surveillance camera images showing 3 male suspects pushing trollies with suitcases past the check-in area. Two have dark hair and one is wearing a hat.
Witnesses described horrific scenes at the airport, with victims lying in pools of blood, their limbs blown off. There were chaotic scenes as passengers fled in panic, and plumes of dark smoke could be seen rising from holes punched through the roof of the building by the blasts.
“A man shouted a few words in Arabic and then I heard a huge blast,” airport baggage security officer Alphonse Lyoura told AFP, his hands bloodied.
“A lot of people lost limbs. One man had lost both legs and there was a policeman with a totally mangled leg.”
An army team later blew up a suspect package at the shuttered airport, with media reporting police had found an unexploded suicide vest.
Authorities later said a third bomb had failed to explode at the airport.
At Maalbeek station, paramedics tended to commuters with bloodied faces as the city’s normally peaceful streets filled with the wailing of sirens.
Airports across Europe swiftly announced they were boosting security, while across the Atlantic, New York and Washington ordered security personnel to crowded areas and train stations.
‘Whole of Europe hit’
Leaders across Europe reacted with outrage to the attack on the EU’s institutional capital, urging closer counter-terror cooperation on a continent that has been on high alert for months.
“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from November’s Paris attacks.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the “very real” terrorist threat faced by countries across Europe, declaring: “We will never left these terrorists win.”
US President Barack Obama said Washington stood with Belgium in the face of the “outrageous” attacks.
“We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally Belgium in bringing to justice those who are responsible, and this is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” Obama said.
Security was also beefed up at Belgium’s nuclear plants and at EU buildings in the French city of Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon announced that Belgium’s terror threat had been raised to its highest level.
Messages of solidarity poured out on social media, with thousands of people sharing images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears.
It has been a week of drama and bloodshed in Brussels. Last Tuesday saw a shootout in the city’s south that saw a Kalashnikov-wielding man killed and 4 police officers wounded.
Investigators believe key Paris suspect Abdeslam slipped out of the apartment as the gun battle broke out. He was arrested 3 days later in Brussels’ gritty Molenbeek district – just around the corner from his family home.
Foreign Minister Reynders said at the weekend that Abdeslam – believed to have played a key logistical role in the Paris carnage – had told investigators he was planning some sort of new attack.
Shiraz Maher, a radicalization expert at Kings College London, said it was “very likely that this attack will have been planned and prepared well in advance of last week’s arrest of Salah Abdeslam.”
The bombings came at a time when the brutal jihadist group is under pressure and losing territory in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. – Lachlan Carmichael and Alex Pigman, AFP / Rappler.com
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