26 March 2016 11:53:18 IST

Belgian police shoot suspect in Europe-wide terror raids

People gather at the Place de la Bourse near a banner with the message, "Not in the name of Islam" as they pay tribute to the victims of Tuesday's bomb attacks in Brussels, Belgium, March 25, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Stunned city mourns the lives lost as hunt for the two suspects continues

Belgian police shot a suspect as part of a huge European terror crackdown that netted several arrests today as France’s president said a jihadist network that targeted both Paris and Brussels was being “destroyed“.

Grieving Belgians held prayers in the rain in a central Brussels square carpeted with flowers and tributes to the 31 dead and 300 wounded in Tuesday’s carnage, but there was also growing anger at the government for letting a string of militants slip through the net.

The raids came as under-fire Belgian investigators uncovered alarming new evidence of a European jihadist cell tied to bombings at Brussels’ airport and metro, November’s Paris attacks and a new French plot.

As US officials confirmed two Americans were among the Brussels dead, Secretary of State John Kerry said he stood by the Belgian people, echoing their backing for the United States after the 9/11 terror attacks.

“Then, voices across Europe declared, Je suis Americain . Now, we declare, Je suis Bruxellois and Ik ben Brussel ,” Kerry said in French and Flemish, the country’s two main languages, after meeting Belgian Premier Charles Michel.

Home-grown extremism

European authorities are under huge pressure to better coordinate the tracking of home-grown extremists and fighters returning from Syria, as evidence grows of a thriving jihadist network straddling France and Belgium.

French President Francois Hollande said the jihadist network behind the Paris and Brussels attacks was “being destroyed” but warned that other terror cells remain.

French police said they had foiled a terror strike by 34-year-old Reda Kriket -- a man previously convicted in Belgium in a terror case alongside Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud -- after arresting him and discovering explosives at his home.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the arrest “foiled a planned attack in France, which was at an advanced stage.”

Belgian police later arrested three people in connection with the new French conspiracy, prosecutors said.

More arrests

In dramatic scenes, one of the suspects was shot in the leg at a tram stop in a huge operation by police in the Belgian capital’s Schaerbeek district, where police this week found a bomb factory linked to the Brussels attacks.

Deepening the links, Belgian prosecutors revealed that Brussels airport bomber Laachraoui’s DNA was found on a suicide vest and a piece of cloth at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris and on a bomb at the Stade de France stadium.

German police said meanwhile they had arrested a 28-year-old Moroccan man whose mobile-phone text messages may link him to one of the Brussels bombers, the news weekly Der Spiegel and ARD TV channel reported.

Time of mourning

In the stunned city, home to the European Union and NATO, mourners returned to the Place de la Bourse square where they stood silently under umbrellas, some in tears and others still in shock.

“The government knows a lot but they do nothing. Why didn’t they do something to stop this attack? I think the government is a bit to blame for this situation,” said Sergio Jorge de Oliveira Silva Lima, 38, a Portuguese citizen who has lived in Belgium for 15 years.

Belgian officials said a series of raids in the capital Thursday yielded six arrests.

A huge manhunt is still under way for at least two suspects -- one of the airport attackers wearing a hat whose bomb failed to go off and another man seen in the metro with the bomber there.

Manhunt

Prosecutors have confirmed that Khalid El Bakraoui -- who blew himself up at Maalbeek metro station shortly after his brother Ibrahim did the same at Zaventem airport -- was the subject of an international warrant over the Paris attacks.

Investigators also say he rented an apartment in Brussels used by key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in the Belgian capital last week.

The Belgian government has admitted “errors” and two ministers offered to resign after Turkey said Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been arrested and deported and that Belgium had ignored warnings that he was a “foreign terrorist fighter.”

The brothers were also listed in American terrorism databases, television network NBC reported.

Belgium has lowered its terror alert to the second-highest level for the first time since the attacks, but the police and military presence on the streets of the capital remains high.

Survivors

Harrowing stories continued to emerge from survivors of the attacks, in which people of around 40 nationalities were killed or wounded.

Briton David Dixon, 51, who lived in Brussels, texted his aunt after the airport blasts to say he was safe, but happened to be on the metro system when a suicide bomber blew himself up, British media said.

Brazilian professional basketball player Sebastien Bellin said that as he lay bleeding profusely and fearing death at Brussels airport, he thought of something odd: his daughter’s tennis skills.

“I just didn’t want my girls to grow up without a dad, you know?” Bellin, 37, told US network ABC from his hospital bed.