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Belgium on anti-terror raid as Kerry visits

Kerry is holding counterterrorism talks in Brussels as top members of Belgium’s embattled government face ongoing criticism

Published: Updated:

Belgian police carried out a fresh anti-terrorist operation on Friday and arrested a suspect after US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Belgium to hold counterterrorism talks.

“I can confirm a police operation targeting a person who was intercepted by police and suffered a slight leg injury,” Schaerbeek Mayor Bernard Clerfayt told AFP. He added there had been several small explosions linked to bomb disposal work.

Earlier, explosions were heard during a police search of a house in Brussels borough of Schaerbeek, Belga news agency said.

The police operation in the Brussels borough of Schaerbeek early on Friday is part of an ongoing investigation following multiple bombing attacks which killed at least 31 people and wounded 316.

The operation is linked to an attack plot in France that was foiled by French police on Thursday, Belga news agency cited French police sources as saying. Belgian media also reported that one person was “neutralized” during the operation.

Kerry’s arrival Friday morning also comes hours after at least six people were detained in raids linked to Tuesday’s attacks on the Brussels airport and subway system. Belgian prosecutors are expected to decide later Friday whether to charge or release them.

French counterterrorism police also detained a man Thursday who officials say was in the advanced stages of an attack plot. Officials told The Associated Press that the suspect, Reda Kriket, 34, had a past Belgian terrorism conviction and was linked to the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud.

Two Americans killed

At least two American citizens have been confirmed killed in this week’s attacks in Brussels, a U.S. official said Friday, as Kerry expressed his condolences to the Belgian people.

Speaking after meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Kerry said the “United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks.”

He did not give a specific number but a senior official said the families of two Americans had been informed of their deaths in Tuesday’s attacks. The official, who was not authorized to speak to the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, did not have further details.

“The United States stands firmly with Belgium and with the nations of Europe in the face of this tragedy,” Kerry said, adding that the world will not relent in its fight against the Islamic State group, which has claimed the attacks.

Third day of mourning

Amid signs that life in Brussels was returning to some sort of normality on the third day of mourning the dead, authorities lowered Belgium’s terror-threat level by one notch. However, they said the situation remained grave and another attack is “likely and possible.” Belgium had been on its highest alert since Tuesday’s bombings.

Resignation offers

Belgian authorities have faced criticism for missing a series of signals pointing to a pending attack, and pressure is mounting on the government domestically and internationally.

Belgium’s interior and justice ministers - who tried to resign this week but were told to keep working by the prime minister - are debating the airport and subway attacks with the country’s lawmakers Friday.

Brahim el-Bakraoui was one of three identified suspected suicide bombers who hit the airport and metro train. A fifth suspected bomber filmed in the metro attack may be dead or alive. Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, 26, killed about 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city center.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said Brahim el-Bakraoui, 29, had been expelled in July after being arrested near the Syrian border and two officials said he had been deported a second time. Belgian and Dutch police had been notified of Turkish suspicions that he was a foreign fighter trying to reach Syria.

At the time, Belgian authorities replied that Bakraoui, who had skipped parole after serving less than half of a nine-year sentence for armed robbery, was a criminal but not a militant.

“You can ask how it came about that someone was let out so early and that we missed the chance to seize him when he was in Turkey. I understand the questions,” Jambon said. “In the circumstances, it was right to take political responsibility and I offered my resignation to the prime minister.”

Geens said systems should be reviewed but noted that other countries had been targeted, citing the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States in which he noted that “there were 3,000 dead.”

Militant network

Investigators are convinced the same Islamist militant network was involved in the November Paris attacks.

Belgian public broadcaster VRT said investigators believed that Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, arrested last Friday, probably planned a similar shooting and suicide bomb attack in Brussels.

The news website Politico Europe said investigators had only questioned Abdeslam for a single hour in the four days between his arrest on March 19 and the Brussels bombings.

Belgian daily De Morgen said investigators had identified a new suspect they believe played a role in the Brussels bombings, naming him as 28-year-old Syrian Naim al-Hamed.

The paper said he was on a list circulated to the security services of other European countries after Tuesday’s attacks along with Mohamed Abrini, Najim Laachraoui and Khalid El Bakraoui. Hamed was also suspected of involvement in the Paris attacks, De Morgen said.

One man was killed in a shootout with police on March 15 that led to the discovery of assault weapons and explosives and the arrest of Abdeslam, 26, and another suspect on March 18.

Belgium on Thursday lowered its security alert level one notch to three from the highest level, four, but officials did not say what that would mean in terms of security measures that have included a heavy police and military presence in Brussels.

ISIS posted a video on social media calling the Brussels blasts a victory and featuring the training of Belgian militants suspected in the Paris attacks.

The lawyer for Abdeslam said the French national wanted to “explain himself” and would no longer resist extradition to France.

Two sources familiar with the matter said the Bakraoui brothers had been on U.S. government counterterrorism watch lists before the attacks. But it was not clear how long they had been known to the authorities.

Security sources told Belgian media the other suicide bomber at the airport was Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks.

Authorities have formally linked the Brussels bombings and the Nov. 13 attacks that left 130 dead in Paris. Both were apparently carried out by the same Belgium-based ISIS cell.

Some of the Brussels attackers had been on the run from authorities in France and Belgium but were still able to hide in safe houses, assemble bombs and carry out linked attacks.

Turkey announced this week that it had warned Belgium last year that one of the Brussels attackers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, had been flagged as a “foreign terrorist fighter.”

The intelligence shortcomings have prompted European authorities to call for quicker and more efficient intelligence cooperation.

A manhunt is underway for one of the Brussels airport attackers who was recorded on a surveillance video and had fled the scene. Prosecutors have not said how many attackers there were in total, or how many accomplices might be at large.

Belgian prosecutors said the raids Thursday night targeted central Brussels, Jette and the Schaerbeek neighborhood, where police had earlier found a huge stash of explosives and bomb-making material in an apartment used by the Brussels attackers.

Belgium’s nuclear agency

Elsewhere, Belgium’s nuclear agency said Friday that it has withdrawn the entry badges of some staff and denied access to other people recently amid concern the country’s nuclear plants could be a target for extremists.
Nuclear control agency spokeswoman Nele Scheerlinck said the move at some plants “is not necessarily linked with the terrorist attacks,” noting that the decision to deny access usually takes weeks.

The dead and wounded in the Brussels attacks came from dozens of countries, and are still being identified.

(With Reuters and AP)