Belgian police captured a suspect carrying what a broadcaster said was a suitcase full of explosives on Friday, after shooting him in the leg during a major police operation following Tuesday’s suicide bombings in Brussels.
The federal prosecutor’s office said the arrest was one of three in Brussels on Friday linked to the arrest in Paris the previous day of an Islamist convicted in Belgium last year and suspected of plotting a new attack.
Nine people in total were arrested since Thursday in Belgium and two in Germany, as European authorities have swooped on militants they link both to the Brussels attacks that killed 31 people and to attacks in Paris last November that killed 130.
Heavily armed police and troops with trucks cordoned off an area around a major intersection in the northern Brussels borough of Schaerbeek. Three blasts could be heard, which the local mayor Bernard Clerfayt said were controlled explosions.
Belgian public broadcaster RTBF quoted Clerfayt as saying the suspect was detained after being wounded and that he was linked to Tuesday’s suicide bombings in Brussels. It said he had been found to be in possession of a suitcase full of explosives.
Witnesses told local media police had shot the man in the leg at a tram stop after he failed to respond to their orders. One witness told RTBF the man had a girl of about eight with him.
“I heard two explosions, they were shooting. I opened the window and saw a man lying near the tram stop. The police ordered him to show his hands, remove his jacket. They said that if he did not comply, they would use their weapons,” a witness who lives nearby told La Libre newspaper.
Video from the scene showed the man lying on his side, shattered glass from the tram shelter smashed by bullets at his feet. A bomb squad robot approached the wounded man, checking for explosives.
Islamic State suicide bombers hit Brussels airport and a metro train on Tuesday in the worst such attack in Belgian history. Investigators believe those attacks were carried out by the same cell responsible for November’s gun and bomb attacks in Paris.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said six people were held in Brussels on Thursday, of whom three were released and three were remanded in custody facing possible charges.
Three others were detained on Friday following the arrest in France of Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old Frenchman sentenced to 10 years in Brussels in absentia in July as part of a Islamist recruiting network dubbed the Syrian Connection.
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine said German police had arrested two people, one of whom had received phone messages with the name of the metro station bomber and the word “fin” -- French for “end” -- three minutes before the metro blast. The German interior ministry declined immediate comment.
A person familiar with the investigation in Belgium said one of the people arrested there was believed to be a suspected accomplice caught on security camera footage with the metro station bomber.
“We have strong indications that this is the suspect who was hunted for the last couple of days. The identification is still ongoing,” the source said. However he said those arrested before midday on Friday did not include a third suspect seen on video alongside the two who blew themselves up at the airport.
Grieving with you
The attacks in Brussels, home to the European Union and NATO, have heightened security concerns around the world and raised questions about EU states’ ability to respond in an effective, coordinated way to the Islamist militant threat.
US secretary of state John Kerry arrived in Brussels on Friday to offer US assistance in security. Two of the Brussels victims were Americans. China and Britain said one each of their nationals were also among the dead.
“The United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks,” Kerry said after meeting Prime Minister Charles Michel.
“Je suis bruxellois. Ik ben Brussel,” Kerry said after brief remarks in French and Dutch, expressing solidarity in its two languages that he too felt a citizen of the Belgian capital.
In Paris on Thursday, authorities arrested Kriket, a French national suspected of belonging to a militant network planning an attack in France. French officials did not directly tie that plot to the Brussels attacks, but Clerfayt, the Schaerbeek mayor, said the man wounded on Friday was linked to both investigations.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a televised address that Kriket’s arrest helped “foil a plot in France that was at an advanced stage”.
A police source said investigators found acetone peroxide explosives in an apartment in a Paris suburb after the arrest.
Belgian Prime Minister Michel rejected resignations offered by his interior and justice ministers on Thursday over a failure to track one of the airport bombers, Brahim El Bakraoui, 29, who had been expelled last year by Turkey as a suspected fighter. Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, 26, was the bomber who struck Maelbeek metro station.
Prosecutors confirmed the second airport bomber was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks.
The Brussels attacks came a week after Belgian police killed a militant during a house raid that led them to Salah Abdeslam, the only suspected participant in the Paris attacks to have been captured alive. His lawyer says he has been cooperating with the investigation but did not know about plans to attack Brussels.
Belgian public broadcaster VRT said investigators believed Abdeslam had probably planned to carry out a shooting and suicide bomb attack in Brussels, similar to Paris.
Belgian daily De Morgen said investigators had identified a new suspect they believe played a role in the Brussels bombings, 28-year-old Syrian Naim al-Hamed. The paper said he was on a list circulated to the security services of other European countries after Tuesday’s attacks, and was also suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks.
Islamic State posted a video on social media calling the Brussels blasts a victory and featuring the training of Belgian militants suspected in the Paris attacks.