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Police uncover high explosives in home of Brussels terror suspects

Authorities say mass of improvised bomb-making material suggests link to IS cell behind deadly attacks in Paris last November

Rescue workers drive in the security perimeter as police make searches in the Schaarbeek district, on March 22, 2016. (AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ)
Rescue workers drive in the security perimeter as police make searches in the Schaarbeek district, on March 22, 2016. (AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ)

Belgian authorities uncovered 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of high explosives and a mass of bomb-making material at a Brussels apartment shared by bombers of the city’s airport and subway, amid growing suggestions that the attacks were the work of the same Islamic State cell that attacked Paris last year.

Belgian prosecutor Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw identified two of the Brussels attackers as brothers — Ibrahim El Bakraoui, a suicide bomber at the airport, and Khalid El Bakraoui, who blew himself up at a subway station. At least 30 people were killed in the attacks and more than 200 more were wounded, some critically.

Investigators raided the apartment where the brothers had stayed in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek after the attacks, and found 15 kilograms of TATP explosives, nails and other material for making explosives, the prosecutor said.

Investigators also found a computer in a trash can on the street including a note from Ibrahim El Bakraoui saying he felt increasingly unsafe and feared landing in prison.

A picture taken off CCTV showing suspects in the Brussels airport attack on March 22, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)
A picture taken off CCTV showing suspects in the Brussels airport attack on March 22, 2016. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Van Leeuw said authorities do not know the identities of two other people pictured with Ibrahim El Bakraoui who appears in the center of a surveillance photo from the airport that police are circulating.

Two were suicide bombers, the prosecutor said; the other was a man in a white jacket and black cap who fled before the bombs went off, leaving behind a bag full of explosives, authorities said. That bag later blew up, but no one was injured.

The Islamic State group, which was behind the Paris attacks, has also claimed responsibility for the Brussels bombings.

Belgian state broadcaster RTBF, citing sources it did not identify, said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented an apartment that was raided last week in an operation that led authorities to top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.

Abdeslam was arrested Friday in the Brussels neighborhood where he grew up, a rough place with links to several of the attackers who targeted a Paris stadium, rock concert and cafes on Nov. 13. Those attacks killed 130 people.

A Belgian official working on the investigation told the AP that it is a “plausible hypothesis” that Abdeslam was part of the cell linked to the Brussels attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss an ongoing investigation.

A Belgian soldier stands guard outside the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels on March 22, 2016 after a blast killed at least 15 people. (AFP/Cédric SIMON)
A Belgian soldier stands guard outside the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels on March 22, 2016 after a blast killed at least 15 people. (AFP/Cédric SIMON)

Authorities are also still looking for a suspected accomplice of Abdeslam, Najim Laachraoui, whom they have been searching for since last week. It’s not clear if he has any connection to the Brussels attack. Belgian newspaper DH initially reported he might be the man in the white jacket at the Brussels airport, but later removed that report from its website.

Laachraoui is believed to have made the suicide vests used in the Paris attacks, a French police official told The Associated Press, adding that Laachraoui’s DNA was found on all of the vests as well as in a Brussels apartment where they were made. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation.

French and Belgian authorities have said in recent days that the network behind the Paris attacks was much larger than initially thought — and developments this week suggest the same group could have staged both the Paris and Brussels attacks.

The airport and several Brussels metro stations remained closed Wednesday, and authorities said the airport would remain closed at least through Thursday, forcing the cancellation of 600 flights each day. Members of the security forces stood guard around the neighborhood housing the headquarters of European Union institutions, as nervous Brussels residents began returning to school and work under a misty rain.

As befits an international city like Brussels, the foreign minister said the dead collectively held at least 40 nationalities.

“It’s a war that terrorism has declared not only on France and on Europe, but on the world,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Wednesday on Europe-1 radio. Valls, who planned to visit Brussels later in the day, urged tougher controls of the EU’s external borders.

Belgian police arrest a suspect believed to be Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam during a raid in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek on March 18, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)
Belgian police arrest a suspect believed to be Paris terror suspect Salah Abdeslam during a raid in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek on March 18, 2016 (screen capture: YouTube)

“We must be able to face the extension of radical Islamism … that spreads in some of our neighborhoods and perverts our youth,” he said. The Paris attackers were mainly French and Belgian citizens of North African descent, some from neighborhoods that struggle with discrimination, unemployment and alienation.

In its claim of responsibility, the Islamic State group said its members detonated suicide vests both at the airport and in the subway, where many passengers fled to safety down dark tunnels filled with hazy smoke from the explosion. IS warned of further attacks, issuing a statement promising “dark days” for countries taking part in the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria and Iraq.

European security officials have been bracing for a major attack for weeks and had warned that IS was actively preparing to strike.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Wednesday that big events, be they sports or cultural, must not be put on hold for fear of attacks. He said that includes the Euro2016 soccer tournament, a monthlong event being held in France that starts in June. Meanwhile, the Belgian football federation announced that it was moving an international soccer friendly match to Portugal next week because of the attacks.

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