Top Belgian officials offer to quit over security failures

By Alastair Macdonald, Foo Yun Chee & Ingrid Melander 
Reuters

BRUSSELS – Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign on Thursday over the failure to track an Islamic State militant expelled twice by Turkey as a suspected fighter last year and who blew himself up at Brussels airport this week.

Ibrahim El Bakraoui was one of three identified suspected suicide bombers who hit the airport and a metro train, killing at least 31 people and wounding some 270 on Tuesday in the worst attack in Belgian history. At least one other man seen with them on airport security cameras is on the run and a fifth suspected bomber filmed in the metro attack may be dead or alive.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon and Justice Minister Koen Geens tendered their resignations to Prime Minister Charles Michel, who asked them to stay on. “In time of war, you cannot leave the field,” Jambon, a right-wing Flemish nationalist, said.

The security lapses in a country that is home to the European Union and NATO have drawn international criticism of an apparent reluctance to tackle Islamist radicals effectively.

Turkish officials said Bakraoui, 29, had been expelled last July after being arrested at Gaziantep near the Syrian border and again in August after he returned to Antalya. Belgian and Dutch authorities had been notified of Turkish suspicions that he was a foreign fighter trying to reach Syria.

At the time, Belgian authorities replied that Bakraoui, who had skipped parole after serving less than half of a 9-year sentence for armed robbery, was a criminal but not a militant.

“You can ask how it came about that someone was let out so early and that we missed the chance to seize him when he was in Turkey. I understand the questions,” Jambon said. “In the circumstances, it was right to take political responsibility and I offered my resignation to the prime minister.”

Investigators are convinced that the same jihadist network was involved in the deadly Paris attacks last November.

Islamic State posted a video on social media on Thursday calling the Brussels blasts a victory and featuring the training of Belgian militants suspected in the Nov. 13 shootings and suicide bombing rampage in Paris that killed 130 people.

Flags fly at half mast at the European Union Commissionn Headquarters in Brussels following Tuesday's bombings in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Flags fly at half mast at the European Union Commission Headquarters in Brussels following Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels, Belgium, March 24, 2016. | REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
Pressure on EU

With pressure mounting on Europe to improve cooperation against terrorism, EU interior and justice ministers were meeting in Brussels on a joint response to Tuesday’s bombings.

Before that, King Philippe, Prime Minister Michel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attended a memorial event outside at the Belgian parliament, while hundreds of ordinary Belgians observed a minute’s silence at a makeshift shrine with candles and flowers outside the Brussels bourse.

“The cries of distress and pain, the sirens and the apocalytic images will remain forever engraved in us,” Michel said. “Our country is in shock, but we are strong. No one will bring down this democracy.”

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls demanded a “strong European response”, but officials say many states, including France, withhold their most cherished intelligence despite a mantra of willingness to share information.

The chief surviving suspect linking the Paris and Brussels attacks, French national Salah Abdeslam, 26, arrested in the Belgian capital last week, was remanded in custody until April 7 with two other suspects.

His lawyer, Sven Mary, who requested the adjournment, said Abdeslam had not been aware of the plan to attack Brussels that was carried out four days after his arrest by men who had shared hideouts with him.

“Salah Abdeslam has asked me to inform you that he wishes to leave for France as quickly as possible,” Mary told reporters at the courthouse, saying his client “wants to explain himself”.

Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, 26, a fellow convict, killed about 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city center.

Security sources told Belgian media the other suicide bomber at the airport was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks.

The third suspect captured on airport security cameras pushing a baggage trolley into the departures hall is now the target of a police manhunt. He has not been named.

The bespectacled man wearing a cream jacket and a black hat ran out of the terminal, federal prosecutors said, and a third suitcase bomb, the biggest of the three, exploded later as bomb disposal experts were clearing the area, causing no casualties.

US criticism

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the bloodshed in the Belgian capital showed Washington’s European allies should do more to fight Islamic State alongside American efforts in the Middle East.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton criticized the lack of cooperation among European countries, saying the EU lacked a system for exchanging air passenger data or a joint intelligence center to share information.

Opinion polls suggest support in Britain for leaving the European Union in a referendum set for June 23 is gaining ground since the Brussels attacks, which fanned security fears that some politicians have linked to immigration.

U.S. Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has suggested torture could be used on militant suspects, said he expected Britain would vote to leave the EU because of concerns about high levels of migration.

Casualties from Tuesday’s attacks came from about 40 nations, drawing an international outpouring of support for Brussels during three days of mourning. Washington said Secretary of State John Kerry would visit Belgium on Friday.

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

At the time of the Paris attacks, its security service had fewer than 600 staff. The government has since raised spending on police and intelligence.

Brussels airport said there would be no flights before Monday at the earliest, with the departure hall sealed off by investigators. Travelers on the busy Easter weekend were diverted to Antwerp, Liege and the northern French city of Lille.

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