Islamic extremists struck on Tuesday in the heart of Europe, killing at least 31 people and wounding scores in back-to-back bombings of the Brussels airport and subway that again laid bare the continent’s vulnerability to suicide squads.
Claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Islamic State said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the subway, where many passengers fled to safety down dark tunnels filled with hazy smoke from the explosion in a train pulling away from the platform.
Bloodied and dazed travellers staggered from the airport after two explosions at least one blamed on a suicide attacker and another reportedly on a suitcase bomb tore through crowds checking in for morning flights. About 40 minutes later, another blast struck subway commuters in central Brussels near the Maelbeek station, which sits amid the European Commission headquarters.
Authorities released a photo taken from closed-circuit TV footage of three men pushing luggage carts, saying two of them apparently were the suicide bombers and that the third dressed in a light-coloured coat, black hat and glasses was at large. They urged the public to contact them if they recognised him. The two men believed to be the suicide attackers apparently were wearing dark gloves on their left hands.
In police raids across Brussels, authorities later found a nail-filled bomb, chemical products and an Islamic State flag in a house in the Schaerbeek neighbourhood, the state prosecutors’ office said in a statement.
People run out of the Zaventem Airport in Brussels after a suicide bomber struck there on Tuesday. — Photo: PTI
European security officials have been bracing for a major attack for weeks and warned that IS was actively preparing to strike. The arrest Friday of Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, heightened those fears, as investigators said many more people were involved than originally thought and that some are still on the loose.
“In this time of tragedy, this black moment for our country, I appeal to everyone to remain calm but also to show solidarity,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who announced three days of mourning in his country’s deadliest terror strike.
“Last year it was Paris. Today it is Brussels. It’s the same attacks,” said French President Francois Hollande.
Belgium raised its terror alert to the highest level, shut the airport through Wednesday and ordered a city-wide lockdown, deploying about 500 soldiers onto Brussels’ largely empty streets to bolster police checkpoints. France and Belgium both reinforced border security.
Medical officials treating the wounded said some victims lost limbs, while others suffered burns or deep gashes from shattered glass or suspected nails packed in with explosives. Among the most seriously wounded were several children.
The bombings came barely four months after suicide attackers based in Brussels’ Molenbeek district slaughtered 130 people at Paris nightspots, and intelligence agencies had warned for months a follow-up strike was inevitable. Those fears increased following Abdeslam’s arrest in Molenbeek, along with police admissions that others suspected of links to the Paris attacks were at large.
A high-level Belgian judicial official said a connection by Abdeslam to Tuesday’s attacks is “a lead to pursue.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Abdeslam has told investigators he was planning to “restart something” from Brussels, said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. He said Sunday that authorities took the claim seriously because “we found a lot of weapons, heavy weapons in the first investigations and we have seen a new network of people around him in Brussels.”
While they knew that some kind of extremist act was being prepared in Europe, they were surprised by the size of Tuesday’s attacks, said Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon.
“It was always possible that more attacks could happen, but we never could have imagined something of this scale,” he said.
Officials at the airport in the Brussels suburb of Zaventem said police had discovered a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an explosives-packed vest abandoned at the facility, offering one potential lead for forensic evidence. Bomb disposal experts safely dismantled that explosive device.
Shockwaves from the attacks crossed the Atlantic, where city and airport officials at several U.S. cities increased security force deployments and raised security levels. A U.S. administration official said American intelligence officers were working with European counterparts to try to identify the apparently skilled bomb-maker or makers involved in the Brussels attacks and to identify any links to bombs used in Paris.