A series of explosions claimed by the Islamic State group ripped through Brussels airport and a metro train station on Tuesday, killing around 35 people in the latest attacks to bring bloody carnage to the heart of Europe.
Two huge blasts, at least one of which prosecutors said was likely caused by a suicide bomber, rocked the check-in hall at Zaventem Airport, strewing the scene with blood and mangled bodies and sending hundreds of terrified travellers fleeing in terror.
The fact that extremists were able to hit high-profile targets in Brussels, Europe’s symbolic capital, just months after Islamic State (IS) militants killed 130 people in Paris, will raise fresh questions about the continent’s ability to cope with the terror threat.
More than 200 people were wounded in Tuesday’s bloodshed, which came just four days after the dramatic arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam – the prime suspect in the Paris attacks – 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.
An online news agency affiliated with IS said the group was behind the attacks. “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.
Hundreds of flights and trains were cancelled as security across Europe was tightened after the bombings, which Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel branded ‘blind, violent and cowardly’. “This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Michel said. His spokesman announced three days of national mourning.
Shortly after the airport blasts hit around 8:00am (0700 GMT), a third explosion rocked Maalbeek metro station, in the heart of the city’s EU quarter, as rush-hour commuters were making their way to work. There are fears more suspects could still be at large in Brussels, home to the headquarters of both Nato and the European Union, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders warned.
Belgian authorities published surveillance camera images showing three male suspects pushing trollies with suitcases past the check-in area. Two have dark hair and one is wearing a hat.
Pierre Meys, spokesman for the Brussels fire brigade, told AFP at least 14 people had been killed at the airport, while Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said ‘around 20’ died in the underground blast.
Witnesses described horrific scenes at the airport, with victims lying in pools of blood, their limbs blown off. There were chaotic scenes as passengers fled in panic, and plumes of dark smoke could be seen rising from holes punched through the roof of the building by the blasts.
“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.”
An army team later blew up a suspect package at the shuttered airport, with media reporting police had found an unexploded suicide vest. Authorities later said a third bomb had failed to explode at the airport.
At Maalbeek station, paramedics tended to commuters with bloodied faces as the city’s normally peaceful streets filled with the wailing of sirens.
Airports across Europe swiftly announced they were boosting security, while across the Atlantic, New York and Washington ordered security personnel to crowded areas and train stations.
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 to its highest level.
The European Union vowed to defend democracy and tolerance and to combat terrorism ‘with all necessary means’.
“This latest attack only strengthens our resolve to defend the European values and tolerance from the attacks of the intolerant. We will be united and firm in the fight against hatred, violent extremism and terrorism,” EU leaders said in an exceptional joint statement as they voiced solidarity with Belgium.
US President Barack Obama said Washington stood with Belgium in the face of the ‘outrageous’ attacks. “We will do whatever is necessary to support our friend and ally Belgium in bringing to justice those who are responsible, and this is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” Obama said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the “despicable attacks… struck at the heart of Belgium and the centre of the European Union”. Ban “is confident that Belgium’s and Europe’s commitment to human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence will continue to be the true and lasting response to the hatred and violence of which they became a victim today,” a UN statement said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at what he called ‘barbarous crimes’ and expressed condolence. “(They) demonstrate once again that terrorism has no borders and threatens people around the world. Fighting this evil calls for the most active international cooperation.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attacks as ‘inhuman’ and drew a moral parallel between terrorists who struck the EU’s institutional capital and Turkey’s major cities. “The terrorists who targeted Brussels, after attacks recently by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Ankara and Da’ish in Istanbul that cost dozens of lives, are showing once again that they respect no value nor any human and moral limit,” Erdogan said.
In Cairo, the leading seat of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar, said the blasts ‘violate the tolerant teachings of Islam’ and urged the international community to confront the ‘epidemic’ of terrorism.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2016.