Explosions at Airport and Subway Kill at Least 26 in Brussels
By ALISSA J. RUBIN, AURELIEN BREEDEN and ANITA RAGHAVANMARCH 22, 2016
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Brussels on Edge After Blasts at Airport and Subway Station
CreditKetevan Kardava, via Associated Press
BRUSSELS — A series of deadly terrorist attacks struck Brussels on Tuesday, with two explosions at the city’s main international airport and a third in a subway station at the heart of the city, near the headquarters complex of the European Union.
At least 11 people were killed at the airport, according to news agencies, and the city’s transit agency said 15 were killed in the subway bombing. More than 130 others were reported wounded. At least one of the two airport explosions was touched off by a suicide bomber, officials said.
“We were fearing terrorist attacks, and that has now happened,” Prime Minister Charles Michel of Belgium said at a news conference, calling the attacks “blind, violent, cowardly.”
On Twitter, he issued an appeal to the population to “avoid all movement,” as the authorities braced for the possibility of additional violence.
The attacks, a vivid illustration of the continued threat to Europe, occurred four days after the capture on Friday of Europe’s most wanted man, Salah Abdeslam. He is the sole survivor of the 10 men believed to have been directly involved in the attacks that killed 130 people in and around Paris on Nov. 13.
President François Hollande of France vowed “to relentlessly fight terrorism, both internationally and internally.” He added: “Through the Brussels attacks, it is the whole of Europe that is hit.”
The French government ordered 1,600 extra police officers to patrol the nation’s borders, including at train stations, airports and ports. The Eiffel Tower was to be lit with the colors of Belgium’s flag on Tuesday night.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain called an emergency meeting of ministers.
Since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, security experts have warned that Europe was likely to face additional assaults by the Islamic State and by other terrorist groups. The Paris attacks showed that the scale and sophistication of the Islamic State’s efforts to carry out operations in Europe were greater than first believed, and analysts have also pointed to Europe’s particular vulnerabilities. They include the huge flow of undocumented migrants to the Continent from the Middle East last year, the movement of European citizens between their home countries and Syria to fight with the Islamic State, and persistent problems with intelligence sharing among European countries and even between competing security agencies in some nations.
Few countries have been more vulnerable than Belgium. It has an especially high proportion of citizens who have traveled to Iraq, insular Muslim communities that have helped shield jihadists, and security services that have had persistent problems conducting effective counterterrorism operations, not least in its four-month effort to capture Mr. Abdeslam.
Breaking News By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 00:22
Explosion Rocks Brussels Subway
A blast shook the Maelbeek station in downtown Brussels, not far from the area that houses most of the European Union’s core institutions. By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date March 22, 2016. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
The attacks on Tuesday put the Belgian capital in a state of virtual lockdown, with the threat level raised to its highest possible level. Frédéric Van Leeuw, the Belgian federal prosecutor, said that border controls had been strengthened and extra police officers mobilized.
All flights to and from Brussels Airport were canceled for the day, and flights were diverted. Subway, tram and bus travel was shut down. Eurostar canceled its trains connecting Brussels with Paris and London. Thalys, which runs high-speed trains linking dozens of cities in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, suspended service. Cellphone lines were jammed as panicked travelers and Belgians tried to make calls.
The events on Tuesday began with a pair of explosions at a departure hall at Brussels Airport, in the town of Zaventem, about seven miles northeast of the city center, just before 8 a.m.
“We were going to check in around 7:30 a.m.,” said one traveler, Ilaria Ruggiano. “There were seven of us. We were a bit late. We heard a big noise and saw a big flash. My mother went to the floor — she was hit. I just dropped my luggage and went to the floor. A kid came out, bleeding a lot. I tried to help him with a tissue, but it was not enough. There were two bombs.”
Another passenger, Jérôme Delanois, said he was at an Internet cafe near the Delta Air Lines counter when he heard a thunderous noise. “There were two explosions — one big one and one little one,” he said. “The first one blew all the walls and everything. There were burning flames. The first one was bigger. It blew out all the windows.”
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Belinda How, a traveler from Malaysia who was in Brussels for a vacation, said she had been lining up to check in for an Etihad Airways flight when she heard the blast. “I was the last passenger queuing up,” she said. “I was very close to the first blast. Everybody was screaming.”
She added: “I said to my son — he is a Down syndrome special-needs child — ‘You have to run.’ He said, ‘My leg hurts.’ I think he was panicked. I left my luggage, dragged him and ran. Before I ran out, there was another bomb.”
Alan Merbaum, who had flown in from Washington, said he had narrowly avoided the blast.
“I heard what sounded like a thud a minute or so before 8 a.m.,” he said. “It sounded like it could have been something dropped off the back of a truck. Ten to 20 seconds later, I heard a loud explosion and I immediately knew what it was. I saw smoke coming out of the front entrance of the airport.”
Photographs posted online showed passengers covered in blood and soot, looking stunned but conscious. Some passengers were seen being taken away on luggage carts.
Other images posted on social media showed smoke rising from a departure hall, where the windows had been blown out, and people running away from the building. Hundreds were herded outside.
News Clips By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS 00:25
Brussels Airport Evacuated After Blasts
Planes, runways and terminals were cleared after two explosions rocked the city’s international airport. By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date March 22, 2016. Photo by Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press. Watch in Times Video »
At 9:11 a.m., a bomb tore through the last car of a subway train as it pulled out of the Maelbeek station, said Françoise Ledune, a spokeswoman for the Brussels transit agency. It killed 15 people and injured 55 others.
Henk Stuten, 50, who works for the European Commission in an office above the station said, “We felt a boom, we felt the building tremble,” adding, “We saw through the windows that people were rushing out of the metro exit.”
About 10 to 15 minutes later, the office was evacuated, Mr. Stuten said. Some people were “very calm,” others were “very emotional,” he added.
He said most of the wounded were on Rue de la Loi, outside the station, which serves the area that houses most of the European Union’s core institutions.
“There were colleagues who just five minutes before were in the metro,” he said. “You realize how close these things can come to you.”
Brian Carroll, 31, a communications consultant from Washington, said he was on a subway car near Maelbeek en route to a conference in downtown Brussels when he heard a loud blast.
“As we were pulling into the station there was suddenly a loud explosion,” he said in a phone interview. “There was smoke everywhere. Everyone dropped to the ground. People were screaming and crying.”
Mr. Carroll said he had remained on the ground for one or two minutes, then got up, pried open a door of the subway car with his hands, and fled. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” he said. “I headed toward an exit. There was smoke and soot everywhere. There was glass everywhere. It was like running through a cloud of dust. I saw the exit of the station was destroyed. I ran out of the station, I ran as far as I could.”
Earlier in the morning, police officers taped off the numerous streets leading to the subway station as emergency vehicles raced to the blast site. Ambulances were clustered around the entrance, next to the normally busy Rue de la Loi, which runs through the heart of the so-called European quarter.
A police helicopter flew overhead.
Belgium has emerged as a focus of counterterrorism investigators after the attacks in Paris in November that left 130 people dead.
On Monday, the Belgian authorities asked for the public’s help in finding Najim Laachraoui, 24, who they identified as an accomplice of Mr. Abdeslam. The authorities are also searching for Mohamed Abrini, 31, who was filmed with Mr. Abdeslam at a gas station on a highway to Paris two days before the Nov. 13 attacks.
Reporting was contributed by Dan Bilefsky and Prashant Rao from London; Lilia Blaise, Nicola Clark and Benoît Morenne from Paris; and James Kanter from Brussels.