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Deadly Blasts Shock Brussels After Islamic State Militant’s Arrest

As many as 31 are reportedly killed in bombings across Belgium's capital in deadly proof that threat of terror has not abated.

A victim receives first aid by rescuers, on March 22, 2016 near Maalbeek metro station in Brussels, after a blast at this station near the EU institutions caused deaths and injuries.  AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND        (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
A victim receives first aid by rescuers, on March 22, 2016 near Maalbeek metro station in Brussels, after a blast at this station near the EU institutions caused deaths and injuries. AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Explosions lashed the Brussels Airport and metro system Tuesday morning, reportedly killing at least 31 in a grim display of terrorist tenacity even after last week’s arrest of one of the main suspects in the deadly November attacks in Paris.

A double bombing at Brussels’s Zaventem airport left 11 dead and 81 wounded, said Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block. An hour later, another blast ripped through the Maelbeek subway station, near European Union headquarters, CNN reported. Twenty people were killed and more than 106 were injured, Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur told reporters, adding that the final death toll “will be harsh.”

Brussels authorities urged residents to “stay where you are,” including in schools and offices, and shut down public transportation systems. Across Europe, airports from Rome to Frankfurt to Paris were put on high alert. Trains from Paris to Brussels also were canceled, and unconfirmed reports said the border between France and Belgium was closed

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called the onslaught “blind, violent, and cowardly.”

“What we feared has happened,” Michel told reporters. “In this time of tragedy, this black moment for our country, I appeal to everyone to remain calm but also to show solidarity.”

At Zaventem, witnesses said they heard screams in Arabic before the two explosions, and then gunfire, according to Italian broadcaster TGCOM24. Belgian prosecutor Frederic Van Leeuw confirmed it was a suicide attack.  

“At first we thought it was a billboard falling down, but it was a big noise; a lot of people were screaming,” one witness, who appeared unharmed, told Al Jazeera.

Initial reports inaccurately suggested the bombs exploded near an American Airlines check-in counter; the airline later released a statement saying they had not.

At the Maelbeek station, Alexandre Brans told The Associated Press that the metro was just pulling out of the station when “there was a really loud explosion.”

“It was panic everywhere,” he said, wiping blood from his face. “There were a lot of people in the metro.”

The attacks came after last week’s dramatic raids in Brussels that ultimately snared Salah Abdeslam, who is accused of helping plan and launch the Nov. 13 bombings in Paris that killed 130. Authorities had hoped Abdeslam’s arrest would yield a trove of intelligence on imminent threats to Europe and Islamic State plots.

The Islamic State’s news agency, Amaq, claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks in a statement on its blog. It said multiple fighters carried out the bombings with suicide belts and explosive devices, according to a translation provided by SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online jihadi traffic. 

Abdeslam and his brother, who died in the Paris attacks, are believed to be tied to the Islamic extremist group that is based in Syria and Iraq. In announcements following his arrest, Belgian authorities said Abdeslam had told investigators that he had been planning an attack that would target Brussels; the 26-year-old has been cooperating with authorities, his lawyer told reporters Monday.

French and Belgian officials also expressed alarm at the size of the terrorist network around Abdeslam, with French President Francois Hollande saying Friday that it was “more numerous than we thought” and Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders saying Sunday that “we are sure there are others.”

Following Abdeslam’s arrest, European authorities said they were still on the hunt for two other men believed to be his accomplices — Najim Laachraoui, 24, a Belgian citizen whose DNA was found in a house was raided by Belgian authorities late last year, and Mohamed Abrini, 31, who had been recorded on surveillance video with Abdeslam in the days leading up to the Paris attacks.

European leaders raised the alarm in their respective capitals. In Rome, officials raised Italy’s security threat levels and called a meeting of its national security council. In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Twitter that he is “shocked and concerned by the events in Brussels” and planned to meet later Tuesday with the U.K.’s emergency response committee.

“We will do everything we can to help,” Cameron said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in Cuba, was briefed on the attacks Tuesday morning. American officials “have been and will continue to be in close contact with their Belgian counterparts,” said a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Europe’s solidarity has been under strain in recent months as member states have sparred over everything from refugee quotas and border security to weakened economies and sanctions disputes. Tuesday’s attacks could draw even deeper divisions across the fractured continent — or, perhaps, help unify its members.

“Terrorists struck Brussels, but it was Europe that was targeted,” Hollande said.

Jakes reported from Rome, Wittmeyer from London. This story has been updated with new casualty tolls and comments. It also corrects initial reports that the airport blasts occurred near the American Airlines counter; a company statement says they did not.

Photo credit: Emmanuel Dunand /Getty

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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