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Brussels airport to reopen, attacks suspect Abdeslam set to cooperate

Brussels bomb-damaged airport said on Thursday it was “technically ready” to reopen but would not resume flights yet, even as prime Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam indicated he wanted to cooperate with French authorities.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2016 22:14 IST
Brussels airport,Brussels attacks,Salah Abdeslam
Damage is seen inside the departure terminal following the March 22, 2016 bombing at Zaventem Airport, Brussels, Belgium.(REUTERS)

Brussels bomb-damaged airport said on Thursday it was “technically ready” to reopen but would not resume flights yet, even as prime Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam indicated he wanted to cooperate with French authorities.

Zaventem airport has been closed since its departure hall was wrecked in coordinated Islamic State suicide attacks on March 22 that also struck the city’s metro system and killed 32 people.

In a bid to end the travel chaos caused by the closure of an important European air hub, hundreds of staff staged drills earlier this week to test temporary check-in facilities as well as enhanced security measures.

The bombings came just four months after 130 people were killed in terror assaults in Paris. Investigators have since uncovered connections between the two attacks, exposing a complex web of cross-border jihadist networks.

Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect of the Paris attacks, was arrested in Brussels on March 18 after four months on the run.

The arrest was considered a rare success in Belgium’s anti-terror fight, although he was found just metres from his family home and has refused to talk since the Brussels bombings despite having links to the attackers.

“Salah Abdeslam wants to be handed over to the French authorities,” lawyer Cedric Moisse told reporters in Brussels. “I can also confirm that he wants to cooperate with the French authorities.”

A prosecutor was to meet with Abdeslam at the prison where he is being held in the western city of Bruges to discuss his extradition under a European arrest warrant.

A judge is set to rule on the extradition by Friday at the latest.

Fruitless search

Finding itself at the heart of Europe’s battle against terrorism, Belgium has carried out a series of raids and arrests in recent weeks.

In the latest operation Thursday, police and soldiers searched a wooded area in Marke near the town of Courtrai in western Belgium, with authorities saying the raid was linked to a thwarted plot to attack France.

The main suspect in that case, Reda Kriket, has been charged in France with membership of a terrorist organisation after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home.

The Brussels bombers and suspects on the run. (AFP Photo)

The joint French-Belgian operation by masked police and armed soldiers along a busy motorway lasted for several hours but ended without yielding any results.

“The operation is over. They didn’t find any explosives or weapons and the operation did not lead to any arrests,” said spokesman Eric Van der Sypt from the federal prosecutor’s office.

Brussels airport meanwhile said it had received the go-ahead from fire services and the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority “for a partial restart of passenger flights”.

“The airport is thus technically ready for a restart,” it said in a statement.

“However, the authorities have yet to take a formal decision on the restart date. Until Friday evening no passenger flights will take place at Brussels Airport.”

An undated handout image made available by Belgium Federal Police of Salah Abdeslam. (AP Photo)

Under the temporary arrangements, the airport would be able to handle 800 departing passengers per hour, around 20% of normal capacity, it said.

Arriving passengers will go through the usual baggage reclaim and arrivals area in the terminal as it was “only slightly damaged and has since been restored for use”.

CCTV appeal

Belgian-born French citizen Abdeslam, 26, has refused to answer questions since the day after his arrest. Before that he was questioned for three hours solely about the Paris attacks -- and not about possible further terror plots.

After the Brussels attacks he again refused to speak to investigators.

Abdeslam has connections to at least two of the Brussels bombers. Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew himself up at the metro, rented a flat in Brussels where Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found.

One of the two airport bombers, Najim Laachraoui, once drove to Hungary with Abdeslam.

Belgium is still searching desperately for a suspected third attacker, the so-called “man in the hat” seen in surveillance images alongside the two airport bombers.

With no suspects in custody over the attacks, police on Thursday appealed for CCTV footage from members of the public.

They asked all residents and business owners in the Brussels region who have surveillance cameras pointed at public roads not to delete any footage from March 15 onwards in case it could help the inquiry.

First Published: Mar 31, 2016 22:14 IST