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18th Aug 2018

Brussels attacker felt ‘hunted everywhere’

  • Brussels police. If searches "go on for too long, I risk end up in a cell next to him,” El Bakraoui wrote in his testament (Photo: Reuters)

Belgian prosecutors on Wednesday (23 March) confirmed the identities of two brothers who committed the suicide attacks in Brussels one day earlier.

But one suspect has not yet been identified and another is still on the run, as the manhunt continues in the Belgian and EU capital.

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Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, blew himself up at a check-in counter at Brussels Zaventem airport shortly before 8am on Tuesday. His brother, Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, carried out the suicide attack in the Maelbeek metro station, near the EU institutions, about one hour later.

Federal prosecutor Frederic van Leeuw told reporters that out of the three men spotted by CCTV cameras at the airport, one of them has not been identified while the third, named as Najim Laachraoui, is still on the run.

Laachraoui had the biggest bomb, but he left his bag, which blew up after bomb disposal teams came to the airport because the explosives had become unstable.

Police on Tuesday raided four houses in a massive, 12-hour search in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek.

In the apartment that served as the hideout of the suspects they found a flag with the logo of the Syria-based jihadist group Islamic State (IS) and bomb-making equipment.

The equipment included 15 kg of TATP - a substance used to make bombs - as well as 150 litres of acetone, 30 litres of liquid oxygen, detonators, a suitcase full of nails, screws and bolts, plastic trays, tools and a ventilator.

They also arrested one person.

Prosecutors suggested that the Brussels attacks were carried out earlier than planned because of the capture last Friday of Salah Abdeslam.

Abdeslam is the only survivor of the group who allegedly carried out the Paris attacks in November.

Police also found a laptop containing the “last will” of Ibrahim El Bakraoui in a dustbin near the Schaerbeek flat.

The Belgian prosecutor said El Bakraoui had written he was “in a rush”.

“I don't know what to do ... hunted everywhere ... no longer safe," he wrote, according to the prosecutors, adding that “if they [police] go on for too long, I risk end up in a cell next to him,” in what is likely to be a reference to Abdeslam.

Abdeslam had been hiding in a flat rented by Khalid El Bakraoui, according to fingerprints found there, and Belgian police had already begun searching for him.

The prosecutor confirmed earlier reports that a taxi driver who picked up the suspects in Schaerbeek tipped off the police. The driver called police after seeing a surveillance video of the suspects.

Van Leeuw said authorities knew of the brothers because of their criminal activity, but did not suspect that they were terrorists.

Belgian police is also looking for Laachraoui, who remains on the run.

Belgian police have said he is also suspected of having ties to the attacks in Paris, as his DNA was found on suicide vests used in the attacks.

Early on Wednesday, Belgian media reported that he had been captured in the Anderlecht neighbourhood of Brussels.

But while special police were present at the site, and according to neighbours an arrest was made early in the morning, it was not Laachraoui.

Laachraoui, a Belgian citizen born in Morocco, went to school in Schaerbeek and later trained in Syria as a fighter. Residents in Schaerbeek were tight lipped about him and his family.

The attacks in Brussels left 32 dead and 270 wounded, but the figure is feared to climb as some of the injured are in serious condition.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that one of the suspected attackers had been detained in Turkey and deported back to Belgium in June 2015.

According to the AFP news agency, Erdogan added that the Belgian authorities failed to confirm the suspect's links to terrorism “despite our warnings” following his deportation.

His comments raise more questions about how effectively Belgian authorities monitor those who go to fight for IS.

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