Belgium on Saturday charged a suspect thought to be the fugitive third Brussels airport bomber with terrorist murder, as a peace march for the victims was cancelled for security reasons after the attacks in the heart of Europe.
The postponement of the Easter Sunday rally underscored the tension in Belgium as police track members of an Islamic State group cell linked to both Tuesday’s Brussels attacks that killed 31 as well as the Paris terror assaults in November.
The airport suspect officially identified as Faycal C, and named by sources close to the inquiry as Faycal Cheffou, was arrested on Thursday night and investigators believe he could be the third man pictured in airport surveillance footage alongside two suicide bombers.
The third man, wearing a distinctive dark hat and light-coloured jacket, has been the subject of a massive manhunt after he fled the scene after his device failed to go off in the attack at Zaventem airport.
In the grieving Belgian capital, a defiant ‘March Against Fear’ had been planned Sunday from the central Place de La Bourse, which has become a shrine to the victims, but was called off after authorities said the mass gathering could draw much-needed resources away from the investigation.
“Let us allow the security services to do their work and that the march, which we too want to take part in, be delayed for several weeks,” Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said.
March organisers said the “security of our citizens is an absolute priority. We join the authorities in proposing a delay and ask people not to come this Sunday.”
Brussels airport meanwhile said it will not reopen before Tuesday at the earliest as it implements new security measures and repairs the departure hall ravaged by the explosions.
– ‘Endless nightmare’ –
Ministers insist they did everything possible to prevent Tuesday’s attacks and track a network also linked to November’s Paris attacks, but the Belgian government is facing a torrent of criticism at home and abroad.
Many believe it failed to do enough to stop young Belgian fighters going to Syria, and two senior ministers have offered to resign after it emerged airport bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been deported from Turkey as a “terrorist fighter”.
“It is an endless nightmare for a country turned upside down,” said Le Soir daily in a front-page editorial.
Pop diva Mariah Carey on Friday cancelled a show in Brussels, saying she was advised to do so “for the safety of my fans, my band, crew and everyone involved with the tour.”
In contrast, veteran French rock star Johnny Hallyday was going ahead with two planned concerts in Brussels over the weekend.
Heavily armed soldiers and police patrolled Brussels and the airport on Saturday, as the city that is home to the EU and NATO headquarters remained on high alert.
Prosecutors on Saturday charged three people including Faycal C, who is the first person formally accused over the suicide attacks on the airport and the Maalbeek metro station.
Le Soir said on its website that the suspect had been identified by a taxi-driver who drove the three bombers to the airport on Tuesday.
A source close to the inquiry told AFP he was being tailed in a car by police when he was arrested on Thursday night outside the federal prosecutor’s office with two other people.
He “has been charged with taking part in a terrorist group, terrorist murder and attempted terrorist murder,” the prosecutor said.
Asked if he was the suspected third bomber dubbed the “man in the hat” alongside bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, a source close to the inquiry told AFP: “That is a hypothesis the investigators are working on.”
– French plot –
Another man arrested in Belgium named as Rabah N. was also charged Saturday in connection with a separate plot to attack France, deepening the connections in what French President Francois Hollande has described as a single terror cell straddling both France and Belgium.
French police said Friday they had foiled a terror plot by 34-year-old Reda Kriket — previously convicted in Belgium in a terror case alongside Paris attacks ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud — and discovered explosives at his home.
A third man, Aboubakar A, was charged with taking part in terrorist activities but the Belgian prosecutors gave no further details.
And a suspect shot in the leg Friday at a tram stop in the Schaarbeek district of Brussels is being held for another 24 hours as investigations into the French plot continue.
The Franco-Belgian links deepened on Friday when it emerged airport attacker Laachraoui’s DNA was found on bombs at the Bataclan concert hall and Stade de France sites in the Paris attacks.
Belgium’s ageing nuclear power plants meanwhile came under scrutiny as a possible terror risk, with the EU’s anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove telling La Libre Belgique newspaper they face the threat of a terrorist cyber-attack over the next five years.
As the painstaking task of identifying the victims of Tuesday’s attacks continued, officials said 24 of those killed had now been formally identified, 11 of whom were foreign nationals.
Of the 340 people injured, 62 were still in intensive care.
Separately, Sweden’s foreign ministry announced that a Swedish woman in her 60s was killed at Zaventem airport.