BRUSSELS: Paris attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini was arrested Friday, a police source said as Belgian authorities announced they had detained several people in connection with the deadly Brussels airport and metro bombings.
The police source gave no details of the location or circumstances of Abrini’s arrest but VRT television said it took place in the Anderlecht district of the Belgian capital which was home to several other suspects now linked to both the Paris and Brussels attacks.
RTL television showed footage of what it said could be Abrini’s arrest, with a man pinned down on the sidewalk by several armed plain-clothed police wearing facemasks and then being bundled into a grey civilian car.
Other reports said among those arrested was a person seen talking to Khalid El Bakraoui who blew himself up at Maalbeek metro station, not far from EU headquarters in Brussels.
The federal prosecutor’s office said there would be a press conference at 9:30 pm (1930 GMT).
Abrini, 31, a Belgian of Moroccan descent, was caught on film at a motorway service station en route to Paris shortly before the November 13 killings with another suspect, the now detained Salah Abdeslam.
Abdeslam, whose brother Brahim blew himself up in Paris, was arrested March 18 in Brussels, not far from his family’s home in the Molenbeek district of the capital.
Abdeslam — who his lawyer said also intended to blow himself up but backed out at the last minute — fled back to Brussels after the Paris attacks, which left 130 dead, finding refuge in the city despite a massive manhunt.
He is now awaiting extradition to France.
The arrests came just one day afer prosecutors launched a fresh appeal for help in finding the suspected surviving attacker in last month’s Brussels airport bombings, releasing a video of the escape route taken by the so-called “man in the hat”.
Police have been searching for this third suspect ever since he was seen on CCTV next to the two suicide bombers — identified as Khalid’s brother Ibrahim and Najim Laachraoui, believed to be the bomb maker.
The airport and metro attacks, Belgium’s worst terrorist onslaught, claimed 32 lives.
There was some initial media speculation that the third man was Abrini and police sources told Agence France-Presse at the time that it was one possibility investigators were considering but nothing appeared to come of it.
The federal prosecutor’s office said several arrests were made Friday in connection with the Brussels airport and metro attacks.
“The federal prosecutor confirms that there have been several arrests in the course of the day in connection with the attacks on the airport and metro,” a statement said.
The police video released Thursday shows the third man, wearing a dark hat and a light-coloured jacket, fleeing the airport’s departure hall after the bombs went off at 7:58 am on March 22.
He then continued on foot to central Brussels where surveillance cameras lost track of him at 9:50 am, having discarded his jacket on the way.
The man appeared calm and at several points appeared to be on the phone.
The federal prosecutor appealed for anyone who might have seen the man to come forward and stressed that investigators were urgently looking for the jacket which might “give invaluable information to the investigators.”
Last week, police asked all residents and business owners in the Brussels region who have external surveillance cameras not to delete any footage from March 15 onwards.
Critics say Belgium has not done enough to tackle Islamic radicalisation as close links have emerged between the Brussels and Paris killings which were claimed by the Islamic State group.
They say Abdeslam must have had some help to have been able to elude the police for four months and then was only finally tracked down in his home base in Molenbeek.
Abdeslam says he had no knowledge of the Brussels attacks, according to his lawyer, despite having links to Khalid El Bakraoui.
He also knew Laachraoui, who drove to Hungary with Abdeslam in September.
More links between the suspects have come to light following the arrest near Paris last month of Reda Kriket, who police said was planning an attack of “extreme violence” based on the arms and explosives found in a flat he used.
Two suspects in that case, identified as Abderrahmane A. and Rabah M, were remanded in custody in Belgium on Thursday, prosecutors said.
Three other suspects held in connection with the Paris attacks, as well as Abdeslam himself, also had their detentions extended. AFP