BRUSSELS: A series of apparently coordinated explosions ripped through Brussels airport and a metro train on Tuesday, killing around 35 people in the latest attacks to target Europe.
Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, AFP reported.
“Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital Brussels, a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State,” the Aamaq news agency said.
Security was tightened across the jittery continent and transport links paralysed after the bombings that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel branded “blind, violent and cowardly”.
“This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Michel said on national television.
Foreign Minister Didier Reynders warned that authorities fear suspects are still at large in the city that is home to NATO and the European Union.
The bloodshed came just four days after the dramatic arrest in Brussels on Friday of Salah Abdeslam – the prime suspect in the Paris terror attacks claimed by the Islamic State group — after four months on the run.
Belgian authorities had been on alert after Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, told investigators he had been planning an attack on Brussels.
Two blasts targeted the main hall of Zaventem Airport at around 8 am (0700 GMT), with prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw saying there was at least one suicide bomber.
A third hit a train at Maalbeek metro station near the European Union’s main buildings, just as commuters were making their way to work in rush hour.
Pierre Meys, spokesperson for the Brussels fire brigade, told AFP at least 11 people had been killed at the airport, while transport operator STIB said at least 15 had died in the underground blast and 55 were wounded.
Witnesses said victims lay in pools of blood at the airport, their limbs blown off. There were chaotic scenes as passengers fled in panic, with a thick plume of smoke rising from the main terminal building.
“A man shouted a few words in Arabic and then I heard a huge blast,” airport baggage security officer Alphonse Lyoura told AFP, his hands bloodied.
“A lot of people lost limbs. One man had lost both legs and there was a policeman with a totally mangled leg.”
The explosions triggered a transport shutdown in the city. Flights were halted with metro, tram and bus services all suspended.
Airports across Europe swiftly announced they were boosting security, including in London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
Across the Atlantic, New York and Washington ordered extra counter-terror officers to crowded areas and train stations.
Leaders across Europe reacted with shock and solidarity, urging cooperation in the fight against terrorism on a continent that has been on high alert for months.
“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from jihadist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the “very real” terrorist threat faced by countries across Europe, declaring: “We will never left these terrorists win.”
Russia and Turkey – also targets of deadly attacks in the last eight months – said the blasts highlighted the need to fight terrorism of every hue and across all borders.
Major international train lines into Brussels were suspended, while security was also beefed up at Belgium’s nuclear plants and at EU buildings in the French city of Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon announced that Belgium’s terror threat had been raised from three to a maximum of four, and the country’s national security council was due to meet.
Residents were told to stay inside, while Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo urged people to avoid making calls to stop the city’s mobile networks getting saturated, and to communicate online instead.
And after reports of arrests and searches, authorities told media to halt all reporting on the investigation into the bombings, “so as not to harm the inquiry”.
In Cairo, the head of Sunni Islam’s leading seat of learning, Al-Azhar, said the attacks “violate the tolerant teachings of Islam,” and urged the international community to confront the “epidemic” of terrorism.
It has been a week of drama and bloodshed in Brussels. Last Tuesday saw a shootout in the city’s south that saw a Kalashnikov-wielding man killed and four police officers wounded.
Investigators believe key Paris suspect Abdeslam slipped out of the apartment as the gunbattle broke out. He was arrested three days later in Brussels’ gritty Molenbeek district — just around the corner from his family home.
Foreign Minister Reynders said at the weekend that Abdeslam – believed to have played a key logistical role in the Paris carnage – had told investigators he was planning some sort of new attack.
At the airport, shaken witnesses spoke of how the blasts sent ceiling tiles shattering to the floor and left a smell of gunpowder in the air.
“We heard the explosion and felt the blowback,” Jean-Pierre Lebeau, a French passenger who had just arrived from Geneva, told AFP, adding that he had seen wounded people and “blood in the elevator”.
Jean-Pierre Herman and his wife Tankrat Paui Tran embraced with shock on their faces.
“My wife just arrived,” Herman said. “I said hello, we took the elevator and in the elevator we heard the first bomb.
“When we came out of the elevator at that moment the second bomb exploded and then we saw doors flying, (the) glass ceiling come down and smoke.”
At Maalbeek station, people with bloodied faces were treated by emergency services on the pavement, an AFP reporter said.
PM Nawaz condemns Brussels attacks
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has strongly condemned the attacks.
“Those responsible for killing of innocent people are devoid of humanity,” he said in a statement.
He also extended his heartfelt condolences to the victims’ families.
“Terrorism is not a threat to any single country or nation, but to the whole humanity and it is high time that this menace is collectively fought for safeguarding our future generations,” the prime minister said.
Suggesting the international countries to put up a joint resistance, Nawaz stressed on fight against terrorism for wiping out the evil from all parts of the world.
“No religion advocates terrorism and killings of innocent people. The terrorists label themselves as associated with different religious faiths and beliefs while their actions are in contrary to the religious teachings,” the prime minister said.
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Pope slams ‘blind violence’ in Brussels, prays for victims
Pope Francis has slammed the ‘blind violence’ of a series of coordinated explosions in Brussels, offering his prayers for the victims.
“Pope Francis entrusts to God’s mercy those killed, and shares through prayer the suffering of their relatives,” the Vatican’s Secretary of State Pietro Parolin said in a telegram to Jozef De Kesel, the archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels.
“The Holy Father once again condemns the blind violence which causes so much suffering and, imploring the gift of peace from God, invokes divine blessings on the bereaved families and the Belgian people,” the telegram said.
Francis expressed his “deepest sympathy to the injured and their families, and all those who contribute to relief”.
Obama condemns ‘outrageous’ Brussels attacks
President Barack Obama has condemned the “outrageous” attacks in Brussels, saying the United States would do everything in its power to hunt down those responsible.
“We must be together regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism. We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world,” he said, speaking in the Cuban capital Havana.
Belgian police issue wanted notice for airport attack suspect
Belgian police issued a wanted notice for a suspect in the bomb attack on Brussels airport on Tuesday in which at least 14 people were killed.
A CCTV picture of the suspect shows a bespectacled man with a goatee beard, wearing a white jacket and black hat, and pushing a trolley with a large black bag.