The chief suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, was summoned to court in Brussels yesterday morning after his arrest last week in the Belgian capital. His lawyer, who had initially vowed to fight extradition, said Abdeslam now wants to be sent to France as soon as possible.
IS claimed responsibility for the attacks in both Brussels and Paris, which have laid bare European security failings and prompted calls for better intelligence co-operation and a tougher response to IS extremists.
Belgian prosecutors have said at least four people were involved in Tuesday’s attacks on the Brussels airport and a subway train, including brothers Brahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, identified as suicide bombers. European security officials identified another suicide bomber as Najim Laachraoui, a suspected bombmaker for the Paris attacks in November.
Prosecutors have said another suspected participant in the airport attack is at large, a man in a hat seen in surveillance images who has not been publicly identified. Belgian state broadcaster RTBF and France’s Le Monde and BFM television reported yesterday that a fifth attacker may also be at large: A man filmed by surveillance cameras in the Brussels Metro on Tuesday carrying a large bag alongside Khalid El Bakraoui. RTBF said it is not clear whether that man was killed in the attack.
Prosecutors, who have not said how many people overall may have taken part in the bombings, did not respond to the reports.
Attention turned yesterday to Paris attacks suspect Abdeslam, who evaded police in two countries for four months before last Friday’s capture in the Molenbeek neighbourhood, where he grew up. He was shot in the leg during his arrest.
The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement that Abdeslam appeared at a hearing yesterday with a suspected accomplice and the court adjourned the proceedings. Abdeslam’s lawyer, Sven Mary, said his client was not physically present for the hearing, even though a helicopter circled overhead, and the area was under extraordinarily heavy security, as are many parts of the Belgian capital.
Mr Mary told reporters at the courthouse that he asked for a one-month delay on any transfer while he studies the large dossier, but that Abdeslam “wants to leave for France as quickly as possible”.
“He wants to explain himself in France, so it’s a good thing,” Mr Mary said. He said the next extradition hearing will be March 31, and he expects the process to take about another two weeks after that.
France is seeking Abdeslam’s extradition to face justice for his involvement in the November 13 attacks on a Paris rock concert, stadium and cafes, which killed 130 people. Several attackers were also killed.
Abdeslam, 26, a French citizen who grew up in Brussels’ heavily immigrant Molenbeek neighbourhood, slipped through police fingers on multiple occasions.
Late yesterday, EU justice and interior ministers were holding an emergency meeting prompted by the Brussels attacks.
Belgium is holding three days of national mourning. Security remains tight, but barriers were removed around the subway station hit by the attack, Maelbeek. The airport will stay closed until at least tomorrow.
Many of the dead remain unidentified, partly because of the severity of devastation caused by the nail-packed bombs detonated in crowds. Eleven people were confirmed dead at the airport, 20 inside the subway station.
The driver of the subway train immediately helped victims despite the horror and fear of the attack — but has insisted he is not a hero.
Christian Delhasse is reportedly already back at work, and posted a statement on his Facebook page saying: “I’m a Metro driver who did his work in specific circumstances. Any other driver in my place would have done the same thing. The heroes are our firefighters, our forces of order, our army.”
Belgium’s prime minister has promised to do everything to determine who was responsible for deadly attacks.