One of the terrorists who carried out attacks Tuesday that killed more than 30 people in Brussels was caught in Turkey in June and deported to Belgium, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday, but the Belgian authorities released him despite Turkey’s warnings that he was “a foreign fighter.”
Erdogan said the man was detained at Turkey’s border with Syria at Gaziantep and that Turkey formally notified Belgian authorities of his deportation on July 14.
Erdogan said “despite our warnings that this person was a foreign terrorist fighter, Belgium could not establish any links with terrorism.”
Belgium said on Wednesday that two brothers connected to the Paris attacks were among the suicide bombers who struck Brussels.
Prosecutors identified Ibrahim El Bakraoui as one of two men who blew themselves up in the Zaventem airport departure hall while his brother Khalid struck at the Maalbeek metro station in the attacks on the symbolic heart of Europe.
Some 32 people were killed in the attacks and over 200 injured.
Police stepped up a manhunt for a third airport assailant whose bomb failed to go off in the attacks claimed by the Islamic State group, which have left European leaders once more grappling for ways to tackle the jihadist threat.
Belgian authorities had already been hunting the Bakraoui brothers, both Belgian nationals with long criminal records, over their links to Salah Abdeslam, the key suspect in the Paris massacre who was arrested in Brussels on Friday after four months on the run.
In an apparent reference to Abdeslam, Bakraoui added: “I don’t want to end up in a cell next to him.”
Authorities are under immense pressure over their apparent inability to smash jihadist networks in Belgium, Europe’s top exporter of jihadist fighters to Syria per capita.
Broadcaster RTBF said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment in Brussels last week under a false name. Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in the apartment during a March 15 raid. Days later, he was in custody.
Bakraoui is also linked to another apartment in southern Belgium that Abdeslam and other jihadists used before the Paris attacks.
Federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw revealed that airport bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui had left a desperate “will” on a computer that he dumped in a trash can in which he said “I don’t know what to do.”
Leaders across Europe have reacted with outrage to the Brussels bombings, with the EU calling an emergency meeting of interior ministers and vowing to defend democracy and combat terrorism “with all means necessary.”
Analysts said the attacks pointed to a sophisticated jihadist network in Europe, and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said there was an “urgent need” to tighten the EU’s external borders following the attacks.