BRUSSELS / AFP
A series of explosions ripped through Brussels airport and a metro train on Tuesday, killing around 35 people and injuring more than 200 in the latest attacks to rock Europe.
Security was tightened across the jittery continent and transport links paralysed after the bombings that Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel branded â€œblind, violent and cowardlyâ€.
â€œThis is a day of tragedy, a black day,â€ Michel said on national television. Foreign Minister Didier Reynders warned that authorities fear suspects could still be at large in the city that is home to both NATO and the European Union.
The bloodshed came just four days after the dramatic arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslamâ€”the prime suspect in the Paris terror attacks claimed by the Islamic State groupâ€”after four months on the run.
Belgian authorities had been on alert after Abdeslam, Europeâ€™s most wanted man, told investigators he had been planning an attack on Brussels. Two blasts shattered the main hall of Zaventem Airport at around 8:00am (0700 GMT), with prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw saying there was probably at least one suicide bomber.
A third hit a train at Maalbeek metro station in the heart of the cityâ€™s EU quarter, just as commuters were making their way to work in rush hour.
Pierre Meys, spokesman for the Brussels fire brigade, said at least 14 people had been killed at the airport, while Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said â€œaround 20â€ died in the underground blast. More than 200 people have been wounded, several critically.
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.
â€œA man shouted a few words in Arabic and then I heard a huge blast,â€ airport baggage security officer Alphonse Lyoura said, his hands bloodied. â€œA lot of people lost limbs. One man had lost both legs and there was a policeman with a totally mangled leg.â€ An army team later blew up a suspect package at the shuttered airport, with media reporting police had found an unexploded suicide vest. At Maalbeek station, paramedics tended to commuters with bloodied faces as the streets filled with the wailing of sirens.
Europeâ€™s capital in lockdown
At least two Polish nationals and a Briton were confirmed among the injured in a city that is the EUâ€™s symbolic capital.
The bombings triggered a transport shutdown, with flights halted and metro, tram and bus services all suspended.
Airports across Europe swiftly announced they were boosting security, including in London, Paris, and Frankfurt. 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 closer counter-terror cooperation on a continent that has been on high alert for months.
â€œThe whole of Europe has been hit,â€ said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from extremist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the â€œvery realâ€ terrorist threat faced by countries across Europe, declaring: â€œWe will never left these terrorists win.â€
Russia and Turkeyâ€”also targets of deadly attacks in the last eight monthsâ€”said the blasts highlighted the need to fight terrorism of every hue and across all borders.
Brussels residents were told to stay inside. Security was also beefed up at Belgiumâ€™s nuclear plantsâ€”where non-essential staff were sent homeâ€”and at EU buildings in the French city of Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon announced that Belgiumâ€™s terror threat had been raised from three to a maximum of four, and the countryâ€™s national security council was due to meet. And after rumours of arrests and searches, authorities told media to halt all reporting on the investigation into the bombings, â€œso as not to harm the inquiryâ€.
In Cairo, the head of Sunni Islamâ€™s leading seat of learning, AlAzhar, said the attacks â€œviolate the tolerant teachings of Islamâ€.
Messages of solidarity poured out on social media, with thousands of people sharing images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears. It has been a week of drama and bloodshed in Brussels. Last Tuesday saw a shootout in the cityâ€™s south that saw a Kalashnikov-wielding man killed and four police officers wounded.
Brussels attacks a â€˜black day for Europeâ€™
Belgium’s European partners responded with shock and solidarity Tuesday after “terrorist attacks” at Brussels airport and a city metro station near the European Union’s institutional heart left at least 21 people dead.
Russia and Turkeyâ€”themselves targets of attacks in recent monthsâ€”condemned the blasts, saying they bore out the need to fight terrorism.
“Today is a black day for #Europe. The horrible events in #Brussels affect us all. We are steadfastly at the Belgians’ side,” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter.
“Our Union’s capital is under attack. We mourn the dead & pledge to conquer terror through democracy,” the Greek foreign ministry said in a tweet. It added in French,”Nous sommes tous Bruxellois,” â€””We are all citizens of Brussels.”
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven described the blasts as “an attack against democratic Europe. We will never accept that terrorists attack our open societies.”
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said: “My heart and spirit in Brussels, Europe,” while Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said “the Brussels attacks strike the heart of our Europe.”
Danish counterpart Lars Lokke Rasmussen denounced the blasts as a “despicable attack.”