Brothers identified as Belgium bombers; key suspect believed still at large

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, Staff Report, Kyodo

Two suicide bombers who struck Brussels were identified Wednesday as brothers linked to the prime suspect in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, and a third assailant was still being sought over the nation’s bloodiest terrorist attack.

A day after the triple blasts that killed at least 34 people and left around 250 injured, in an operation claimed by the Islamic State jihadi group, RTBF television said police had identified two suicide attackers as Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui.

Police had already been hunting the pair over their links to Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in November’s Paris terrorist attacks, who was arrested in Brussels on Friday after four months on the run.

Police investigating the Brussels attacks found 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of TATP high explosives and a mass of bomb-making material during searches in the Schaerbeek district of the Belgian capital, the federal prosecutor said Wednesday.

Frederic van Leeuw said police also found 150 liters (40 U.S. gallons) of acetone, detonators, bags filled with nails and other equipment used to make bombs of the type used in the attacks.

TATP high explosives have been used extensively by the Islamic State group.

In Tokyo on Wednesday, the government said two Japanese were injured in Tuesday’s subway terrorist bombing. Japan also roundly condemned the attacks.

“A despicable terrorist attack like this is intolerable whatever reasons there might be. Our country resolutely condemns it,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a daily news conference in the morning.

“We’d like to show a strong sense of solidarity with the people in Belgium and Europe,” he said.

According to Suga, one of the two Japanese, who is in his 30s, was seriously injured and the other man was slightly wounded.

The government said it would not release further information on the victims because it had yet to obtain consent from the men or their family members, Suga said.

When asked how the government plans to ensure safety during the Group of Seven meeting, which Japan is hosting in the Ise-Shima area of Mie Prefecture in May, Suga didn’t specifically answer but said that, among other measures, immigration security would be boosted.

Meanwhile, Japanese companies operating in Belgium and other European countries have begun checking on and securing the safety of their employees.

Some companies, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., decided to prohibit their employees from visiting Belgium.

Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., whose sales subsidiary for the European market is located in the suburbs of Brussels, said Tuesday it had confirmed that all of its employees are safe and that it was also checking on their families. Officials from Toyota, which also maintains its European headquarters in Brussels, said it, too, was checking on the whereabouts of its employees and their families.

Panasonic Corp. said Tuesday the company was considering banning its employees from traveling to Belgium. Fast Retailing Co. temporarily closed five stores of its Comptoir des Cotonniers and Princesse tam.tam brands in Brussels.

Major Japanese travel agencies Hankyu Travel International Co. and JTB Corp. said they decided to cancel tours to Belgium that leave Japan on Wednesday and Thursday. Hankyu Travel, which had a tour of 23 people and a guide staying in the Belgian capital at the time of the attacks, said the group was expected to leave the country by a land route since the airport is closed.

As Belgium-bound flights have been grounded, Japan Post Co. announced Wednesday that it will suspend shipments of airmail to Belgium for the time being and asked people to refrain from sending letters and such to the country. Mail that has already been sent can be returned if they are still in Japan, but fees will be required in some cases, it said.

In Belgium, three days of national mourning have been declared. The population of Brussels was also asked to observe a minute’s silence at noon Wednesday, led by King Philippe and Prime Minister Charles Michel.

Two suicide blasts hit Brussels airport Tuesday morning followed soon after by a third on a train at Maalbeek station, close to key European Union institutions, just as rush-hour commuters were heading to work.

The bloodshed was unprecedented in a city that is home to both NATO and the EU as well as Belgium’s capital.

The attacks sent the city into lockdown and European airports scrambled to boost security, amid fresh questions over Europe’s ability to combat terrorism little more than four months after the Paris attacks that left 130 dead and 350 wounded.

Brussels’ subway was partially running again by Wednesday morning under tight security, with soldiers checking passengers’ bags at station entrances. The rush-hour crowds on the platforms were noticeably thinner than usual.

“I’m a bit afraid, especially for my little brothers,” said Dominique Salazar, 18, who was taking her siblings, 3 and 6, to school.

“But we don’t any other choice to get around.”

Belgian authorities had launched a dragnet, releasing CCTV images of three men pushing trolleys through the airport and issuing a public appeal for information.

Prosecutors said police raids were carried out across Belgium on Tuesday, adding that a bomb, an Islamic State flag and chemicals were found in one apartment.

RTBF said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment in Brussels last week under a false name where Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found.

He is also linked to another apartment in southern Belgium that Abdeslam and other jihadis used before the Paris attacks.

The link to Abdeslam — who told prosecutors he was planning an attack on Brussels — has underscored fears about authorities’ inability to undermine jihadi networks in Belgium, Europe’s top exporter of extremist fighters to Syria per capita.

Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, was arrested in a dramatic raid Friday in the rundown Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek — just around the corner from his family home.

“This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Michel said Tuesday on national television, vowing the country would not be cowed by the “deadliest attacks we have ever seen in Belgium.”

Leaders across Europe reacted with outrage, with the EU vowing to defend democracy and tolerance but also combat terrorism “with all means necessary.”

“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from November’s attacks.

Landmarks from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate lit up in the black, yellow and red of Belgium’s national flag in solidarity Tuesday night.

On social media, thousands of users shared images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears.

Flags will fly at half mast on public buildings across Belgium through Thursday, while Brussels’ historic Place de la Bourse has become the center for a public outpouring of grief, covered with messages of solidarity, candles and flowers.

The death toll on Tuesday was put at more than 30 dead, but officials said Wednesday they still could not give a final figure.

“We do not have a definitive total; for the moment it remains at what we get gave yesterday, some 30 dead and about 250 injured,” a spokesman for the anti-terror Crisis Center said.

The first victim to be identified was Adelma Marina Tapia Ruiz, a Peruvian woman who had been living in Brussels for six years, who died in the airport bombing.

Three Americans, eight French citizens, two Britons, two Colombians and an Ecuadorian are among the injured.

The Islamic State claimed the bombings, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attacks against “the crusader state” of Belgium — part of the international coalition that has been carrying out strikes against IS in Iraq.

The government had been considering extending the strikes against IS targets in Syria, where the jihadis still hold swaths of territory.

Analysts said the attacks pointed to a sophisticated jihadi network in Europe, and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there was an “urgent need” to tighten the EU’s external borders following the attacks.

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Europe had “allowed security to slip,” questioning the wisdom of EU’s Schengen passport-free zone, while the U.S. warned citizens about the “potential risks” of traveling in Europe.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that a suspect named Najim Laachraoui had been arrested Wednesday. This report was later retracted.