Brussels Bomb Suspect Was Moroccan And ‘Known To Police’

Fire is seen at Brussels central station in Brussels, Belgium June 20, 2017
Image captionThe initial explosion was captured by a local lawyer

A man suspected of setting off a bomb at Brussels Central Station on Tuesday has been identified as a 36-year-old Moroccan from a city district that has spawned a number of jihadist attackers.

The suspect came from Molenbeek and was carrying a bomb armed with nails and gas canisters, officials said.

He was shot and later died after the explosion, which is being treated as a terrorist attack.

He was known to police but had not been linked to terrorism, reports said.

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told reporters that a “terrorist attack had been averted” at the station.

Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said the suspect, identified only by his initials O.Z., had approached a group of passengers beneath the main concourse and attempted to blow up his suitcase. It partially exploded and caught fire before blowing up a second time.

The man had then run towards a station-master and then targeted a soldier, screaming “Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)”, before being shot. He was not wearing a suicide belt.

He later died of his injuries and his home in Molenbeek was searched by special forces in the early hours of Wednesday.

Security tightened at public places

After convening a security cabinet on Wednesday, the prime minister said extra measures were being taken to secure stations, public places and major events.

Major concerts by rock group Coldplay are due to go ahead in Brussels as planned on Wednesday and Thursday. Belgium is currently at its second highest level of security alert. The capital is also due to host a summit of European Union leaders on Thursday and Friday.

Security was tight around Brussels Central Station on Wednesday
Image captionSecurity was tight around Brussels Central Station on Wednesday

Brussels was hit by a double bombing in March 2016 in which 32 people died. The attacks on Zaventem airport and the Brussels metro were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

Many of the jihadists involved in the 2016 Brussels bombings and the Paris attacks in November 2015 came from the Belgian capital, and several from Molenbeek in particular.

The district just west of the city centre was home to Paris suicide bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam and his brother Salah Abdeslam, seen as a key figure in the attacks. Brussels attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini was a childhood friend.

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Defence Minister Steven Vandeput praised the soldiers for following their guidelines to the letter when they opened fire on the attacker.

A bystander who took a picture of the suitcase when it caught fire said he did not at first realise it was a bomb. “It was only when I heard the second blast and then shots being fired that I thought I’d better run,” said lawyer Rémy Bonnaffée.

Media captionPolice arrive after explosion in Brussels central train station

Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a railway sorting agent, said he had gone down to the station’s mezzanine level when he heard someone shouting.

Media captionNicolas Van Herrewegen saw a man with a suicide belt shout “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic)

“I was behind a wall when it exploded. I went down and alerted my colleagues to evacuate everyone. He [the suspect] was still around but after that we didn’t see him.”

“It wasn’t exactly a big explosion but the impact was pretty big,” he added. “People were running away.”

Armed police stand guard outside Brussels Central train station
Image captionArmed Belgian police have sealed off the scene

Mr Van Herrewegen described the suspect as well-built and tanned with short hair, wearing a white shirt and jeans.

“I saw that he had something on him because I could see wires emerging, so it may have been a suicide vest,” he said.

‘Shutters down’

Arash Aazami arrived at the station just after the explosion. He told the BBC: “As we entered into the station, we were evacuated loudly by some security personnel.

“Looked around, saw people running in the streets, trying to seek refuge and decided to do the same ourselves.”

Soldiers and police officials guide members of the public on a street in Brussels, 20 June
Image captionPolice and soldiers guided people to safety outside the station

Several attacks have taken place in Paris and London in recent days.

The French capital was jolted on Monday when a man with an Islamist background died after ramming his car into a police van on the Avenue des Champs-Élysée. The Brussels prosecutor said on Wednesday that the Paris attack was not being linked to the Belgian explosion “for the time being”.

London has also been on edge since a van was driven into Muslim worshippers outside a mosque on Sunday night, with one man dying and nine people injured. It followed IS-claimed attacks on London’s Borough Market in June and a pop concert in Manchester in May that together left some 30 people dead and more than 100 injured.

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