Belgium charges attacks suspect, ‘March Against Fear’ called off
Belgium charged a suspect thought to be the fugitive third Brussels airport bomber with terrorist murder, as a Sunday peace march for the victims was cancelled for security reasons after the attacks in the heart of Europe.
The postponement of the Easter Sunday rally underscored the tension in Belgium as police track members of an Islamic State group cell linked to both Tuesday’s Brussels attacks that killed 31 as well as the Paris assaults in November.
The airport suspect officially identified as Faycal C, and named by sources close to the inquiry as Faycal Cheffou, was arrested on Thursday night as investigators believe he could be the third man pictured in airport surveillance footage alongside two suicide bombers.
The third man, wearing a distinctive dark hat and light-coloured jacket, has been the subject of a massive manhunt after he fled the scene when his device failed to go off in the attack at Zaventem airport.
In the grieving Belgian capital, a defiant “March Against Fear” had been planned for Sunday from the central Place de La Bourse, which has become a shrine to the victims, but was called off after authorities said the mass gathering could draw much-needed resources away from the investigation.
“Let us allow the security services to do their work and that the march, which we too want to take part in, be delayed for several weeks,” Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said.
March organisers said the “security of our citizens is an absolute priority. We join the authorities in proposing a delay and ask people not to come this Sunday.”
Brussels airport meanwhile said an examination of the main building housing the departure hall wrecked by two suicide bombers showed the structure is stable and authorities will now see if temporary check-in desks can be installed.
In a separate statement earlier the airport said it did not expect to be able to reopen before Tuesday, with a partial resumption of passenger services, as it repaired the damage and put in place new security measures.
– ‘Endless nightmare’ –
Ministers insist they did everything possible to prevent Tuesday’s attacks and track a network also linked to November’s Paris attacks, but the Belgian government is facing a torrent of criticism at home and abroad.
Many believe it failed to do enough to stop young Belgian fighters going to Syria, and two senior ministers have offered to resign after it emerged airport bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been deported from Turkey as a “terrorist fighter”.
“It is an endless nightmare for a country turned upside down,” said Le Soir daily in a front-page editorial.
Heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled Brussels and the airport on Saturday, as the city that is home to the EU and NATO headquarters remained on high alert.
Prosecutors charged three people including Faycal C, who is the first person formally accused over the suicide attacks on the airport and the Maalbeek metro station.
Le Soir said on its website that the suspect had been identified by a taxi driver who drove the three bombers to the airport on Tuesday.
A source close to the inquiry told AFP he was being tailed in a car by police when he was arrested on Thursday night outside the federal prosecutor’s office with two other people.
He “has been charged with taking part in a terrorist group, terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder,” the prosecutor said.
Asked if he was the suspected third bomber dubbed the “man in the hat” alongside bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, a source close to the inquiry told AFP: “That is a hypothesis the investigators are working on.”
– French plot –
Another man arrested in Belgium named as Rabah N. was also charged Saturday in connection with a separate plot to attack France, deepening the links in what French President Francois Hollande has described as a single terror cell straddling both countries.
The Franco-Belgian links were highlighted the day before as it emerged airport attacker Laachraoui’s DNA was found on bombs at the Bataclan concert hall and Stade de France sites in the Paris attacks.
In Italy, meanwhile, police arrested an Algerian national over a probe into fake ID documents used by the Paris and Brussels attackers, allegedly including those of Laachraoui.
As the painstaking task of identifying the victims of Tuesday’s attacks continued, officials said 24 of those killed had now been formally identified, 11 of whom were foreign nationals.
An American couple who lived in Brussels were among those killed, the company that employed the husband said on Saturday.
Of the 340 people wounded, 62 were still in intensive care.
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