Europe hunt for terrorists gathers pace

Friday 25/03/2016
Tensions and fears

BRUSSELS - Belgium raised the death toll from the Brussels attacks to 35 and charged three terror suspects Monday as police across Europe stepped up efforts to unravel an Islamic State network linked to the carnage.

Police released a new video of a third suspect in the March 22 Zaventem airport attack, the so-called "man in the hat" seen with two other suicide bombers, who escaped after his bomb failed to explode.

Mourners were set to hold an Easter Monday church service in memory of the victims of the bombings at the airport and at Maalbeek metro station, Belgium's worst ever terror attack.

The tensions in Belgium were underscored on Sunday when police used water cannon to disperse far-right football hooligans chanting anti-immigrant slogans disrupted the makeshift memorial to the victims in central Brussels.

Announcing the new death toll, Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block tweeted: "Four patients deceased in hospital. Medical teams did all possible. Total victims: 35. Courage to all the families."

Prosecutors' spokeswoman Ine Van Wymersch confirmed the new death toll to reporters at the government crisis centre, adding that it did not include the three attackers.

"We have counted today 35 victims of the attacks at Zaventem and Maalbeek. These figures include four people who died in hospital after the attacks, and 31 victims who died immediately at the scene of the crime," she said.

Twenty-eight victims had been formally identified, she said. The US State Department on Sunday confirmed the death of two more Americans, bringing the total to four.

As Belgium struggles to come to terms with the tragedy, recriminations continue over whether the authorities could and should have done more to prevent the carnage, as the links to the November Paris attacks by the ISIS group grow clearer by the day.

Prosecutors said three men arrested at the weekend in a series of raids had been charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist group," while a fourth person had been released.

The men -- identified as Yassine A., Mohamed B. et Aboubaker O. -- were held during 13 raids in Brussels and the towns of Mechelen and Duffel.

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office said that "no direct link has been established with the Brussels attacks".

In the latest piece in the puzzle of the jihadist cross-border networks, police arrested a 32-year-old French national in Rotterdam Sunday on suspicion of planning a terror attack, Dutch prosecutors said, following a raid carried out at the request of French authorities.

The man is thought to have been planning an attack in France in the name of the Islamic State group along with Reda Kriket, who was detained near Paris on Thursday, a French police source said.

Belgian prosecutors at the weekend also charged two men with involvement in the Kriket plot, including one shot in the leg after a dramatic stand-off at a tram stop in Brussels on Friday.

An Algerian held in Italy as part of a probe into fake ID documents used by the Paris and Brussels attackers is still being interrogated but refused to answer questions, a judicial source said.

Investigations continue into the core group of Brussels attackers, with police releasing video of a man in a hat and white jacket pushing a trolley with a large bag through the departure hall next to bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui.

"It's a new video which had not previously been released," a spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office said.

Prosecutors are still working on the theory that the third man is Faycal Cheffou, an activist who was charged on Saturday with "terrorist murder" in relation to the airport attack, a source close to the inquiry said.

Cheffou is however not cooperating with investigators, the source said.

The Brussels attackers have close links to the November Paris attacks in which 130 people were killed, with bomb-maker Laachraoui's DNA being found on some of the explosives used in France.

Meanwhile metro bomber Khalid El Bakraoui, Ibrahim's brother, is believed to have rented a property linked to Paris prime suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in Brussels on March 18.

Brussels Airport said it would carry out a test run on Tuesday to see if the repair work in the wrecked departure hall was satisfactory, but it could not give a firm date for resuming services.