Under pressure, terrorists abandoned France plans, attacked Brussels

The perpetrators of last month's terrorist attacks on Brussels, under pressure from ongoing investigations, struck the Belgian capital rather than execute a new attack they were planning on France, Belgian federal prosecutors said Sunday.

The information emerged following the arrest on Friday of Paris terrorism suspect Mohamed Abrini, who later confessed to also being the fugitive third attacker in Brussels airport last month, where two others set off suicide bombs.

Abrini's arrest and information gathered by investigators has shed new light on links between the attacks in Paris last November that killed 130 people and suicide attacks in Brussels on March 22 that killed 32 people at the city's international airport and the Maelbeek underground station.

The attacks on the Belgian capital took place four days after the arrest there of Salah Abdeslam, a key suspect sought in relation to the Paris attacks.

"Numerous elements in the investigation have shown that the terrorist group initially had the intention to strike in France again," the prosecution said in a statement.

"Eventually, surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation, they urgently took the decision to strike in Brussels," the prosecutors added.

Last month, a suspect named as Reda Kriket was arrested in France on allegations that he was in the advanced stages of planning a new terrorist attack in Paris. Others have been seized in Brussels in connection with Kriket, but investigators have been treating this as a separate case to the Brussels attacks.

Abrini was charged Sunday with terrorist murders, attempted terrorist murders and participation in the activities of a terrorist group, after he admitted to being the sought suspect known as the "man with the hat" based on surveillance images from the Brussels airport.

The 31-year-old had previously been charged with similar terrorist offences relating to the attacks in Paris last November.

Abrini's exact role in the Paris attacks is not known. He was spotted with key suspect Salah Abdeslam in the days before the attacks, and his fingerprints and DNA were found in a car used in the attacks, as well as at terrorist hideouts in Brussels.

Belgian police also arrested another key suspect in the Brussels attacks on Friday, a man they have identified as Osama K and suspect of having been present at the suicide bomb attack at the city's underground Maelbeek station.

Osama K had also been filmed at a shopping mall in central Brussels buying bags used in the airport attack, the prosecution said. He has been identified in Belgian media as Osama Krayem, a Swedish national, but that has not been officially confirmed.

Belgian broadcasters RTBF and VRT reported Sunday that Osama K had told investigators following his arrest that he and the underground suicide bomber Khalid El Bakraoui had set off together on the day of the attacks from a location in the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek.

This apartment was the target of a large-scale police raid carried out on Saturday, both broadcasters said in unconfirmed reports, adding that investigators were trying to locate a backpack used by Osama K on the day of the attacks.

The airport suicide bombers, meanwhile, are believed to have left from an apartment in the suburb of Schaerbeek.

Two other men arrested on Friday - identified by prosecutors as Herve B M, a Rwandan national, and Bilal E M - are suspected of offering assistance to Abrini and Osama K. They have been charged with complicity in terrorist murders.

Belgian media named one of the men as Bilal El Makhoukhi, a suspect condemned last year in a mass trial against members of the terrorist group Sharia4Belgium, but officials have not confirmed this.

Meanwhile Sunday, the Brussels public transport service announced that underground services would be extended as of Monday, with trains due to run at 51 of the city's 69 stations from 7 am until 9 pm (0500 until 1900 GMT). There has only been a partial service since the attacks.

Last week, Brussels public transport buses resumed their services to the airport, but trains are not yet stopping there. The airport has not yet returned to full operation.

Last update: Sun, 10/04/2016 - 21:02

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