- At least 34 killed, almost 200 wounded in three explosions
- Islamic State claims responsibility
- Police identify three suspects, one of whom is at large
- Brussels in lockdown; security tightened at airports in Europe, North America
Bombs struck the Brussels airport and a metro station in the heart of the city during the morning rush hour Tuesday, killing at least 34 people and wounding nearly 200, as the city was locked down amid heightened security threats. The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attacks, a news agency affiliated with the group said.
The two airport blasts, at least one of which was blamed on a suicide bomber, left behind a chaotic scene of splattered blood in the departure lounge as windows were blown out, ceilings collapsed and travellers streamed out of the smoky building. Police found and neutralized a third bomb at the airport once the chaos after the two initial blasts had eased, said Florence Muls, a spokeswoman for the airport.
About an hour later, another bomb exploded on a subway train near the European Union headquarters. Terrified passengers had to scurry through darkened tunnels to safety.
Belgium raised its terror alert to the highest level, diverting planes and trains and ordering people to stay where they were. European leaders held emergency security meetings and deployed more police, explosives experts, sniffer dogs and plainclothes officers, with some warning against travel to Belgium.
“What we feared has happened,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel told a news conference. He said authorities are concerned there will be more attacks.
“We realize we face a tragic moment. We have to be calm and show solidarity.”
Belgian authorities were searching for a man shown in a photograph walking beside two other suspects who appear to have blown themselves up at Brussels Airport on Tuesday morning.
“A photograph of three male suspects was taken at Zaventem. Two of them seem to have committed suicide attacks. The third, wearing a light-colored jacket and a hat, is actively being sought,” Federal Prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw told a news conference. A government official said later that the third suspect was seen running away from the airport building.
Belgian authorities say a house search in the Brussels neighbourhood of Schaerbeek has “led to the discovery of an explosive device containing among other things nails.”
Investigators also found chemical products and an Islamic State flag.
The attacks came four days after Brussels police captured the prime surviving suspect in the Islamic State attacks on Paris, Salah Abdeslam. After his arrest Friday, Abdeslam told authorities he had created a new network and was planning new attacks.
House searches are ongoing in the region around Brussels after the attacks, public broadcaster RTBF said. Bomb squads also detonated suspicious objects found in at least two locations elsewhere in the capital, but neither contained explosives, authorities said.
Non-essential staff at Belgium’s Doel and Tihange nuclear power plants had been evacuated, with key staff remaining on site, and the plants remained in operation, authorities said.
One or two Kalashnikovs were found in the departure lounge at the airport, according to a European security official in contact with Belgian police who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the ongoing investigation. It was not immediately clear whether the firearms were used in the attacks.
“Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital Brussels,” the AMAQ news agency said. “Islamic State fighters opened fire inside Zaventem Airport, before several of them detonated their explosive belts, as a martyrdom bomber detonated his explosive belt in the Maalbeek metro station.”
European security officials have been bracing for a major attack for weeks, and warned that the Islamic State group was actively preparing to strike. The arrest Friday of Abdeslam heightened those fears, as investigators said many more people were involved than originally thought, and that some are still on the loose.
“We are at war,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after a crisis meeting called by the French president. “We have been subjected for the last few months in Europe to acts of war.”
Tuesday’s explosions at the airport came shortly after 8 a.m., one of its busiest periods. Belgian Health Minister Maggie de Block said 11 people were killed and 81 wounded.
The legs of some of those killed at Zaventem airport were shattered, as if the blast came from a piece of luggage nearby, an airport worker who helped carry their bodies said.
Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at Zaventem airport luggage security said that before the first bomb went off, he heard a man shouting something in Arabic.
“Then the tiled ceiling of the airport collapsed. I helped carry out five dead, with their legs destroyed, as if the bomb came from a piece of luggage” he told reporters, his hands covered in blood. “It’s from the people I carried out”.
While most European airports are known for stringent screening procedures of passengers and their baggage, that typically takes place only once passengers have checked in and are heading to the departure gates. Although there may be discreet surveillance, there is nothing to prevent member of the public walking in to the departure hall at Zaventem airport with heavy baggage.
Anthony Deloos, an airport worker for Swissport, which handles check-in and baggage services, said the first explosion took place near the Swissport counters where customers pay for overweight baggage. He and a colleague said the second blast hit near the Starbucks cafe.
“We heard a big explosion. It’s like when you’re in a party and suddenly your hearing goes out, from like a big noise,” Deloos said, adding that shredded paper floated through the air as a colleague told him to run.
“I jumped into a luggage chute to be safe,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said he had no reports of any Canadian citizens being affected by Tuesday’s explosions. On Twitter, the Canadian embassy in Brussels advised Canadians to follow instructions issued by the Belgian Crisis Centre and to call the following numbers in case of a consular emergency: 32-2-741-0611 or 613-996-8885 or 800-2326-6831 or to email email@example.com. Air Canada has issued a travel alert for customers trying to travel through the Brussels airport, advising flights may be cancelled or delayed.
Andrian Heil, a Canadian from Montreal whose office is only a few hundred metres from the airport, told The Globe and Mail this morning: “From what I can physically see is that traffic and transport in general is snarled as any access to the airport has been blocked to allow police and rescue vehicles to get to the airport.
“More terrifying than the airport is what is happening in town as the metro explosions happened at some at the busiest stations at a time when they would have been in heavy use. The phone network seems to be struggling as text messages are failing and not always getting through which complicates matters further.”
Tom De Doncker, 21, check-in agent intern, was near the site of the second explosion.
“I saw a soldier pulling away a body,” he said. “It felt like I was hit too” from the concussion of the blast.
Zach Mouzoun, who arrived on a flight from Geneva about 10 minutes before the first blast, told BFM television that the second, louder explosion brought down ceilings and ruptured pipes, mixing water with victims’ blood.
“It was atrocious. The ceilings collapsed,” he said. “There was blood everywhere, injured people, bags everywhere.”
“We were walking in the debris. It was a war scene,” he said.
Near the entrance to Brussels’ Maelbeek subway station, not far from the headquarters of the European Union, rescue workers set up a makeshift medical treatment centre in a pub. Dazed and shocked morning commuters streamed from the metro entrances as police tried to set up a security cordon.
“The Metro was leaving Maelbeek station for Schuman when there was a really loud explosion,” said Alexandre Brans, 32, wiping blood from his face. “It was panic everywhere. There were a lot of people in the Metro.”
Francoise Ledune, a spokeswoman for the Brussels Metro, said on BFM television there appeared to have been just one explosion on the subway in a car that was stopped at Maelbeek. The bomb on the subway train came after 9 a.m., killing 20 people and wounding more than 100, Mayor Yvan Majeur said.
Police cordoned off a wide area around the glass and steel EU buildings, putting soldiers on streets that lead down the main avenue through the area where the metro explosion took place and blocking access from Brussels’ main park. A road tunnel running through the area was also closed. No trams or buses were running and some people walked long distances across the city get home.
Brussels residents turned to Twitter to offer people stranded in the Belgian capital rooms and transport. A new Twitter account called “Brussels Lift” was created to offer practical help by connecting “people who need to travel with drivers who have empty seats.”
At the airport, passengers fled as quickly as they could.
Amateur video shown on France’s i-Tele television showed passengers including a child running with a backpack dashing out of the terminal in different directions as they tugged luggage. Another image showed a security officer patrolling inside a hall with blown-out paneling and what appeared to be ceiling insulation covering the floor.
Marc Noel, 63, was about to board a Delta flight to Atlanta, to return to his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. A Belgian native, Noel says he was in an airport shop buying automobile magazines when the first explosion occurred 50 yards away.
“People were crying, shouting, children. It was a horrible experience,” he told AP. He said his decision to shop might have saved his life. “I would probably have been in that place when the bomb went off.”
With three runways in the shape of a “Z,” the airport connects Europe’s capital to 226 destinations around the world and handled nearly 23.5 million passengers in 2015.
Passengers were led onto the tarmac and the crisis centre urged people not to come to the airport.
Authorities told people in Brussels to stay where they were, bringing the city to a standstill. Brussels airport will be closed on Wednesday as well.
In Paris, France’s top security official said the country was immediately reinforcing security at airports, train stations and metros.
On Monday, Belgian interior minister Jan Jambon said the country’s security forces were on high alert for a possible revenge attack following the arrest Abdelsam, a French citizen who was born and raised in Brussels. “We know that stopping one cell can … push others into action,” he said on Belgian radio. “We are aware this is the case.”
President Barack Obama pledged to “do whatever is necessary” to help Belgian authorities seek justice for the victims of Tuesday's attacks. “We stand in solidarity with them in condemning these outrageous attacks against innocent people,” Obama said in Havana, where he was closing a historic three-day visit.
The attacks will not undermine the will of the United States and its allies to ramp up the campaign against Islamic State, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told Congress. “We also stand ready to provide assistance to our friends and allies in Europe as necessary,” he said.
Police in major U.S. cities stepped up security, though officials said there was no evidence of specific threats to the United States. Uniformed officers, some in tactical gear, patrolled airports and transit hubs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington as major airlines including Delta, United and American cancelled and rerouted flights headed to Brussels.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government faces a referendum in June on Britain’s membership in the European Union, wrote in a Tweet: “I am shocked and concerned by events in Brussels. We will do everything we can to help.”
Speaking after a cabinet meeting, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “Like all Canadians, I was outraged when I woke up to the news that so many innocent citizens had been killed and injured. Shocked and profoundly saddened,” he said. “What happened today in Brussels was an act of terror. It was violence directed at innocent civilians and its goal was to take lives and instill fear. This cannot and will not be tolerated.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the threat level in Canada would not be changed in the wake of the attacks, which has remained at medium since October of 2014. In Toronto, security and police presence was beefed up at the downtown Union Station.
Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, which owns 39 per cent of the Brussels airport, said it was "in close contact with Brussels airport and the Belgium government, providing whatever support we can."
Belgium’s royal palace denied a report that the property, in central Brussels, had been evacuated following the bomb blast at the nearby metro station. Broadcaster RTBF had reported King Philippe and Queen Mathilde were in shock and the palace had been evacuated.
With files from the Globe and Mail's Eric Reguly, Reuters and the Canadian Press.Report Typo/Error