Belgium to extradite Paris suspect Abdeslam to France
BRUSSELS, Belgium (2nd UPDATE) – Belgian authorities Thursday, March 31 approved the extradition of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam to France, as officials at the bomb-damaged Brussels airport said it was ready to reopen although flights would not resume immediately.
Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect in the November attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, was arrested in Brussels on March 18 after 4 months on the run as Europe's most wanted man.
Four days after he was arrested, the Belgian capital was struck by coordinated Islamic State group bombings at the airport and a metro station carried out by suicide attackers with links to Abdeslam and the Paris attacks cell.
Abdeslam's lawyer said that his 26-year-old client had agreed to be transferred to France under a European arrest warrant, clearing the way for a fast-track extradition.
"What Salah Abdeslam wants to make known is that he wants to cooperate with the French authorities. These are the words he wants to make known," lawyer Cedric Moisse told reporters in Brussels.
Abdeslam's arrest was considered a rare success in Belgium's anti-terror fight, although he was found within a short distance of his family home in the Molenbeek district of the capital. He has refused to talk since the Brussels bombings.
The transfer to France should happen "within 10 days", said French justice minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas.
Belgian investigators will still be allowed to question Abdeslam in France.
He is believed to have acted as a logistics coordinator for the Paris attacks and has told investigators he was meant to carry out a suicide bombing at the Stade de France stadium but backed out.
Police concerns at airport
Brussels airport, closed since its departure hall was wrecked in the attacks, said it had received the go-ahead from fire services and the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority "for a partial restart of passenger flights".
"The airport is thus technically ready for a restart," it said in a statement. "However, the authorities have yet to take a formal decision on the restart date. Until Friday evening, no passenger flights will take place at Brussels Airport."
In a bid to end the travel chaos caused by the closure of a major European air hub, hundreds of staff staged drills this week to test temporary check-in facilities as well as enhanced security measures.
Under the temporary arrangements, Zaventem airport would be able to handle 800 departing passengers per hour – around 20% of normal capacity, it said.
Adding to the airport's woes, police unions threatened to go on strike if security measures are not improved ahead of the reopening.
Also Thursday, Portugal stepped up security at its airports following a message purportedly from the Islamic State group threatening attacks on Lisbon.
"Necessary security measures have been taken, including at airports," said Helena Fazenda, head of the country's internal security force, after the non-authenticated message was circulated on social media.
Close links have emerged between the Paris and Brussels attackers, exposing a tangled web of cross-border extremist cells and triggering a series of raids and arrests in several European countries.
In the latest operation on Thursday, police and soldiers searched a wooded area in western Belgium, with authorities saying the raid was linked to a thwarted plot to attack France.
The main suspect in that case, Reda Kriket, has been charged in France with membership of a terrorist organization after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home.
The joint French-Belgian operation by masked police and soldiers along a busy motorway lasted for several hours but Belgian prosecutors said no weapons or explosives were found and no arrests were made.
Belgian-born French citizen Abdeslam has connections to at least two of the Brussels bombers. Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew himself up at the metro, rented a flat in Brussels where Abdeslam's fingerprints were found.
One of the two airport bombers, Najim Laachraoui, drove to Hungary with Abdeslam in September.
Belgium is still searching for a suspected 3rd attacker, the so-called "man in the hat" seen in surveillance images alongside the two airport bombers.
With no suspects in custody over the attacks, police appealed for possible images taken by members of the public. – Philippe Siuberski, with Michelle Fitzpatrick, AFP/Rappler.com