BRUSSELS: Police pressed ahead Saturday with the search for suspects in Belgium’s worst ever terror attack, as a series of raids and arrests revealed more links with the November Paris killings and a new French plot.
The government meanwhile came in for a torrent of criticism, with key ministers on the back foot saying they had done everything possible to prevent Tuesday’s airport and metro attacks which left 31 dead and some 300 wounded.
Many believe it has not done enough to stop young Belgian fighters going to Syria to join Islamic State — which claimed the attacks — and from where they return home battle-hardened and more extremist than before.
“Attacks, tens of dead, hundreds hurt, tears, raids, a political crisis, the capital under siege and fugitives still on the run while (key Paris suspect) Salah Abdeslam says nothing in prison,” wrote Christophe Berti in a front page editorial for Le Soir daily.
“It is an endless nightmare for a country turned upside down,” Berti said.
On Friday (Saturday in Manila), a series of raids produced three arrests in connection with what French authorities said was an imminent new attack.
President Francois Hollande said a jihadist network which hit both Paris and Brussels was being “destroyed” but also warned that the threat remained and everyone must be on guard.
The Belgian government has admitted “errors” and two ministers offered to resign after Turkey said it had arrested and deported Ibrahim El Bakraoui, who blew himself up in the airport attack.
Belgium had ignored warnings that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter,” it said.
Ibrahim and his brother Khalid, the suicide bomber in the metro attack, were also on a US counter-terrorism watch list, CNN reported.
Ibrahim was on the list even before the November Paris attacks while Khalid was added soon after. Prosecutors have also confirmed Khalid was the subject of an international warrant over the Paris attacks.
Fears of returning fighters
European authorities are under huge pressure to better coordinate the tracking of homegrown extremists and fighters returning from Syria, as evidence grows of a thriving jihadist network straddling France and Belgium.
A Belgian parliamentary commission on Friday questioned the ministers for justice, foreign affairs, and the interior on how Ibrahim El Bakraoui had managed to slip past the authorities.
The ministers said the information from Ankara was vague while a Belgian police officer at the embassy in Turkey had “blundered.”
French police said Friday they had foiled a terror strike in France by 34-year-old Reda Kriket — a man previously convicted in Belgium in a terror case alongside Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud — after arresting him and discovering explosives at his home.
The Brussels raids saw one suspect shot in the leg at a tram stop in broad daylight in the capital’s Schaerbeek district, where police earlier this week found a bomb factory linked to the airport and metro attacks.
Belgian prosecutors meanwhile said that the DNA of second airport bomber Najim Laachraoui was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth at the Bataclan concert hall where 90 people were killed during November’s Paris attacks, and on a bomb at the Stade de France stadium.
A huge manhunt is still under way for at least two suspects — one of the airport attackers whose bomb failed to go off and another man seen in the metro with Khalid El Bakraoui just before he detonated his bomb.
Investigators also say Khalid rented an apartment in Brussels used by Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in the Belgian capital on March 18.
The federal prosecutor said Friday that Abdeslam had “invoked his right to silence” and has not spoken to investigators since a few brief interviews the day after his arrest.
Speaking in Brussels, US Secretary of State John Kerry said he stood by the Belgian people, echoing their backing for the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
“Then, voices across Europe declared, ‘Je suis Americain’. Now, we declare, ‘Je suis Bruxellois’ and ‘Ik ben Brussel,’ Kerry said in French and Flemish, the country’s two main languages, after meeting Belgian premier Charles Michel.
Harrowing stories continued to emerge from survivors of the attacks, in which people of around 40 nationalities were killed or wounded.
Briton David Dixon, 51, who lived in Brussels, texted his aunt after the airport blasts to say he was safe, but happened to be on the metro system when Khalid blew himself up, British media said.
Grieving Belgians continued to gather in a central Brussels square carpeted with flowers and tributes to the dead and wounded as the country tries to come to terms with the tragedy.