Dozens Killed by Multiple Explosions in Brussels Airport and Subway

At least 34 people have been killed by several blasts in the Belgian capital, days after the arrest of a suspect in November's Paris attacks. Belgian police had been on alert for any reprisal action.
March 22, 2016, 8:40am
Photo by Julien Warnand/EPA

Explosions tore through the departure hall of Brussels airport on Tuesday morning killing at least 14 people and injuring another 81. Shortly afterwards, a second blast struck a metro station in the Belgian capital, close to European Union (EU) institutions, which left an estimated 20 dead and more than 100 people wounded. Both attacks have since been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.

The latest rise in death toll in the subway attack was reported by the Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur at a news conference, with the official saying "around 20 people" died. The mayor's updated figures bring the total death count for both the metro and airport explosions at 34, an increase from numbers provided earlier in the day by Belgian health minister Maggie de Block.

IS, currently entrenched in Iraq and Syria, later claimed responsibility for the bombings. It issued a statement through the Amaq Agency, which is linked to the group, saying its fighters had waged both the attacks. The group identified Belgium as "a country participating in the international coalition against the Islamic State." According to the statement "several" fighters were involved in the airport attack, while it said the metro station bombing was carried out by one suicide bomber.

Belgian police have now issued a wanted notice for a man suspected of involvement in the airport attacks at Brussels airport. Calling for information they issued a photograph of a man, dressed in white and wearing a hat, as he pushed a luggage trolley.

— Avis de recherche (@police_temoin)March 22, 2016

The first attack took place at Brussels airport in Zaventem, 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) northeast of the city center. Two explosions rocked the departure hall of the airport at Tuesday morning at 8 am local time and the other just outside the airport's Starbucks. A third bomb was later found on the airport premises. Security services destroyed the undetonated device, according to the provincial governor of the Brabant Flanders region.

The Belga news agency said shots were fired at the airport and there were shouts in Arabic shortly before the explosions, one of which Belgium's federal prosecutor said was likely a suicide attack.

The front façade of the Zaventem airport, which hosted over 23 million passengers in 2015, has been completely destroyed. Passengers already inside airplanes were evacuated via bus towards the northern edge of the airport.

Video showed devastation inside the departure hall with ceiling tiles and glass scattered across the floor. Some passengers emerged from the terminal with blood spattered over their clothes.

Joke Massa, a 26-year-old Brussels resident, had just walked through the departure hall to check in for a flight when the first explosion hit, forcing people to the ground amid the confusion. She told VICE News that people began to run as the second explosion went off and the "ceiling was coming down."

Massa said that outside the airport people were calling family members for help. "People were screaming… just horrible, it was a nightmare," she added.

Zaventem — Giorgi Tabagari (@Tabagari)March 22, 2016

Shortly after the first attack, another explosion was heard at Maelbeek metro station in southeastern Brussels as a train was leaving the station traveling towards the center of the European Quarter. Victims reportedly attempted to climb out of the train windows.

The European Commission has locked down its staff and all public transport across the city has been closed.

STIB, Brussels' transportation authority, worked to immediately evacuate the injured from the Maelbeek station and announced that all transportation networks have been indefinitely closed. Buses that usually carry everyday citizens of Belgium's capital have been redirected to hold the injured and to transport them to hospitals around the city.

Smoke billowed out of the Maelbeek station on the Rue de la Loi, a major artery of traffic inside Brussels. The street was closed and cars stretched as far as the eye could see across the highways of the city.

Dozens of ambulances poured into the European Quarter, and volunteer forces poured into Brussels from cities across the country to care for the wounded and to console friends and families.

Authorities have uncovered suspicious objects left behind at both scenes. In the Brussels airport, police reportedly uncovered a suicide vest that had not been detonated, national broadcaster VTM said. The army was said to have defused the device with a controlled explosion operation on a suspicious package on the premises. A similar exercise took place earlier in the day at the metro station following the attacks there.

Cellular networks were saturated across the city and people were urged to use Facebook, Twitter, or Whatsapp to communicate to friends and family that they are safe. The indefinite closure of the train system and major roads in the city posed a particular problem for many Belgians who commute to the city for work everyday. The entire Thalys train network, which links thousands of passengers across France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and western Germany, was also closed.

The Belgian Crisis Centre, clearly wary of a further incident, appealed to the population: "Stay where you are."

Brussels airport said it had cancelled all flights, the complex had been evacuated, and it will remain closed until 6am on Wednesday. All three main long-distance rail stations in Brussels were closed and train services on the cross-channel tunnel from London to Brussels were suspended.

Passengers are evacuated from the terminal building. (Photo by Jonas Roosens/EPA)

Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel addressed the attacks this morning, calling them "blind, violently, and cowardly."

"We were fearing terrorist attacks, and that has now happened," he said. "We must face this challenge in solidarity, united, together."

Federal prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw said it was too early to provide more details about the attackers. Van Leeuw discussed the initial explosion at the airport, saying it was "probably a suicide bomber." He did not provide details on subsequent explosions.

Social media showed pictures of smoke rising from the airport departure hall where windows had been shattered by the blasts. Passengers were seen running away down a slipway.

— Anna Ahronheim (@AAhronheim)March 22, 2016

Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at the airport, said he heard a man shouting out in Arabic before the first explosion. "Then the glass ceiling of the airport collapsed."

"I helped carry out five people dead, their legs mangled," he said, his hands covered in blood.

Sky News television's Alex Rossi, at the scene, said he heard two "very, very loud explosions."

"I could feel the building move. There was also dust and smoke as well… I went towards where the explosion came from and there were people coming out looking very dazed and shocked."

Evacuated from metro — ososxe (@ososxe)March 22, 2016

Fumée métro maelbeeck — JF (@jfbxl)March 22, 2016

Arrêt Maelbeek — Pauline Armandet (@PaulineArmandet)March 22, 2016

As Belgium elevated its terror threat level to four, the highest rating, non-essential staff were evacuated from Belgium's Tihange nuclear plant at the request of the country's authorities, its French operator Engie said. A spokesman told Reuters that key staff remained on the site to continue operating the facility.

Elsewhere in Europe, other countries began to take action in the wake of the attacks. The UK Prime Minister David Cameron will hold an emergency meeting with government ministers. The Dutch military strengthened security at airports and borders and police in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have also stepped up security at airports and other public places.

Speaking from the Élysée presidential palace, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that an extra 400 police officers and gendarmes had been deployed at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly airports, as well as in subway and train stations, and other sensitive sites in and around the French capital.

"France and Belgium are linked in horror," said French president François Hollande, adding that, "The war against terrorism must be fought across the whole of Europe."

"We must make sure we are united, on a European level, on the global level, and the most vital unity, on a national level," said Hollande. "We are all affected."

The blasts occurred four days after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant in November militant attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.

Belgian and French had already been on alert for any reprisal actionafter the Friday arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the prime surviving suspect for November's Paris attacks on a stadium, cafes, and a concert hall. Abdeslam was captured by Belgian officers after a shootout on Friday and France deployed 1,600 police officers and gendarmes at the border and at major transit hubs following the arrest.

Smoke of — Daniela Schwarzer (@D_Schwarzer)March 22, 2016

Belgium's Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said on Monday the country was on high alert for a possible revenge attack following the capture of 26-year-old Abdeslam.

"We know that stopping one cell can… push others into action. We are aware of it in this case," he told public radio.

French investigator Francois Molins told a news conference in Paris on Saturday that Abdeslam, a French citizen born and raised in Brussels, admitted to investigators he had wanted to blow himself up along with others at the Stade de France on the night of the attack claimed by Islamic State; but he later backed out.

Alexander J. Saeedy contributed to this report.