Belgians hunt ‘third man’ after Islamic State bombings

24 Mar, 2016 3:07 pm

BRUSSELS – A “third man” seen with two Islamic State suicide bombers at Brussels Airport was the focus of a Belgian manhunt on Thursday after police identified three others, including two brothers, who killed at least 31 people at the airport and on a city metro train.

Turkey’s president criticised Belgium for failing to track Brahim El Bakraoui, a convicted Belgian armed robber whom it deported last year and who blew himself up at the airport on Tuesday an hour before his brother Khalid, a fellow convict, killed some 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city centre.

The third bomber, security sources told Belgian media, was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks and who also detonated a suitcase bomb at the airport.

The “third man”, captured on airport security cameras pushing a baggage trolley into the departures hall alongside Laachraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui, is now the target of police searches.

The suspect fled the scene on Tuesday, federal prosecutors said, and a third suitcase bomb, the biggest of the three, was later found.

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the bloodshed in the capital of the European Union, not far from NATO headquarters, showed that Washington’s European allies should do more to fight Islamic State alongside American efforts in the Middle East.

“The Brussels event is going to further signify to Europeans that, as we have been accelerating our campaign to defeat ISIL in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere, they need to accelerate their efforts and join us,” Carter told CNN, using another acronym for Islamic State.

About 300 people were wounded. Casualties came from some 40 nationalities, drawing an international outpouring of support for the cosmopolitan city during three days of mourning.

US President Barack Obama offered “any assistance that we can” to Belgium in bringing surviving assailants to justice.

Washington announced that Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Belgium on Friday to demonstrate solidarity.

The Belgian government deflected the criticism from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, saying the elder Bakraoui brother, 29, had not been deported back to Belgium but to the neighbouring Netherlands. Officials have said that as in the case of one of the Paris suicide bombers, they cannot detain militant suspects expelled from Turkey without clear evidence of a crime.

“Belgium ignored our warning that this person is a foreign fighter,” Erdogan said of Brahim El Bakraoui, who was detained near the Syrian border and deported last July.

The case highlighted the problem Belgium has faced with some 300 locals who have fought in Syria, the biggest contingent from Europe in relation to its national population of 11 million. -Reuters

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