Even as Belgium identified the three suspects involved in the Brussels airport attack on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in Istanbul that Turkey had previously deported one of them but Belgium set him free.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his Romanian counterpart Klaus Iohannis, President Erdoğan said Turkey had caught Brussels Airport bomber Ibrahim el-Bakraoui in the south-eastern Gaziantep province in July 2015 and deported him, but he was released as Belgium could not establish the suspect’s terror links despite Turkey’s warnings.
”Belgian embassy was notified on July 14, 2015 about the deportation of the attacker, who was later released in Belgium,” Erdoğan said.
The president underscored that it is crucial for the international community to take a determined stance against terrorism.
Three Brussels Airport attackers identified
Earlier in the day, Belgian police launched a manhunt for Brussels Airport attack suspect and ‘bomb-maker’ Najim Laachraoui. Belgian media withdrew earlier reports which said Laachraoui, 25, was arrested in the city’s Anderlecht district.
Laachraoui is also linked to bombs used in the Paris massacres in November as his DNA was found on suicide belts used in the Bataclan Theatre and the Stade de France.
He was caught on Brussels Airport’s CCTV camera along with Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and his brother Khalid el-Bakraoui casually wheeling their baggage carts.
The el-Bakraoui brothers died in the twin blast while Laachraoui ran away after the device he was carrying failed to explode.
The unexploded device was found in one of the suitcases recovered from the blast site. It was later neutralized by police.
Bomb-maker’s lair found in Schaarbeek
After police released the pictures of the three suspects, a taxi driver remembered where he had picked up the trio and alerted the police.
According to him, the suspects were planning to bring more bags containing the explosives to the airport but the taxi was too small to carry them.
“When he arrived, the terrorists got angry because they had asked for a larger taxi. The taxi driver was not allowed to help the suspects with their luggage when they arrived at the airport. The taxi driver put two and two together after the attacks,” VRT’s Caroline Van den Berghe.
The driver led the police to a house in the Brussels suburb of Schaerbeek from where he had picked up the three suspects. Police recovered a nail bomb, chemical products and an Islamic State flag from the house.
Schaarbeek mayor Bernard Clerfayt said the property recently changed hands and that the new owner rented it out only to people staying a short while.
The third bomber (Laachraoui) ran away from the terminal after his device failed to explode following the twin blasts.
According to investigators, the two brothers blew themselves up by pressing the detonator concealed under a single glove they were wearing on their left hands.
Third suspect a ‘handler’ in disguise
Rich Frankel, former head of counter-terrorism for the FBI in New York, told ABC News it appeared that the third man may have been a “handler” in disguise for the two suicide bombers and was meant to slip away.
A former military intelligence analyst agreed, telling ABC News the third man could have been around to “see the [attack] through” and wore a disguise in order to escape later. The suspected bombers, he said, “don’t carry the same concern – who cares if their identity is blown?”
The Islamic State (IS) group has claimed responsibility for the bombings at the Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attacks against “the crusader state” of Belgium. The group has warned of more attacks.
El-Bakraoui brothers linked to Paris attackers
According to police, suicide bombers Khalid el-Bakraoui and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui were linked to jihadists who carried out the deadly attacks in Paris in November and in particular to Salah Abdeslam, the chief surviving suspect of the attacks who was captured on Friday, The local reported.
Khalid used a false name to rent the flat in the Forest area of Brussels which was the scene last Tuesday (March 15) of the gun battle between police and unknown suspects.
Earlier, he rented out a hideout in the town of Charleroi that had been used by the Paris cell before the November attacks.
One of the brothers is also suspected of providing ammunition and weapons for the Paris attacks.
Europe vulnerable to terror attacks?
That extremists were able to hit high-profile targets in Brussels, capital of the European Union, just months after IS group militants killed 130 people in Paris, raises fresh questions about the continent’s ability to prevent terrorism.
One question raised is how Belgium allowed extremism to grow unchecked just days after the arrest of key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam.
Brussels residents held a candlelit vigil in the Place de la Bourse square Tuesday night where they sang songs and waved the Belgian flag, while on social media thousands of people shared images of beloved Belgian cartoon character Tintin in tears.
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