Brussels (AFP) – Belgium’s transport minister resigned on Friday after being accused of ignoring EU reports of security failings at the country’s airports that were laid bare by last month’s suicide bombings.
The resignation of Jacqueline Galant is the first political fallout from the attacks on March 22 that killed 32 people in Brussels, including 16 at the national airport.
Belgium, a notoriously complex country divided along linguistic and political lines, has been accused of a lax security apparatus that was also exposed by a foiled attack on the high-speed train connection to Paris last August.
The little-experienced Galant was under fire after the damning reports were leaked to media. This followed the shock resignation of a top transport official on Thursday who accused Galant of incompetence and “Gestapo-like” behaviour.
“Transport Minister Jacqueline Galant has offered her resignation to the king, which was accepted,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said after a cabinet meeting, according to a statement from the royal palace.
Two Islamic State attackers blew themselves up in the departure hall at Brussels airport in a first wave of coordinated attacks that also hit a Brussels metro station near European Union headquarters buildings.
The EU reports only pertained to areas of the airport beyond security checks, but they pointed to “serious deficiences” in security including an inadequate tracing of explosive devices.
The latest report from April 2015 said Belgium was still “non-compliant, with serious deficiencies” in five areas based on spot checks at Antwerp airport.
Galant denied she was ever made aware of the reports that date back to 2008 and that also warn of an alarming lack of staff and funding at the airport authority.
But a top official said he had clearly notified Galant and her office and even provided separate expertise drawn up in January 2015 after the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.
That report warned that a terrorist attack on Belgium’s airports “was no longer hypothetical”.
– ‘Well-orchestrated theatrics’ –
“The fact that about a dozen Brussels airport employees with access to sensitive areas have been identified as either having left or potentially leaving for Syria, must serve as a warning,” the report added, according to daily La Libre Belgique.
Michel confirmed to lawmakers on Thursday that the reports were indeed received by Galant, heaping pressure on her to step down.
In announcing her resignation, Galant strongly denounced what she called a “media crusade” by her political enemies who were taking advantage of the Brussels attacks to replace her.
“The well-orchestrated theatrics of the last 48 hours leave me unable to continue,” Galant added.
The European Commission, the EU regulator that drew up the reports, declined to comment on the specific Galant case, but said it stood by its case work.
“In Europe, we have the highest safety standards in the world, that speaks for itself,” Jakub Adamowicz, a commission spokesman, told a news briefing.
Galant was also responsible for Belgium’s embattled air traffic control authority where labour strife earlier this week disrupted flights just as the bomb-damaged Brussels airport was struggling to return to normal.