Questions raised over Belgium’s handling of terrorism case

Fayçal Cheffou, a freelance journalist, is not the "man in the hat", prosecutors said. []

Belgium yesterday freed the sole suspect charged over last week’s Islamic State attacks in Brussels that left 35 dead on Monday (28 March), raising fresh questions about the handling of the case by beleaguered Belgian authorities.

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement that “the indications that led to the arrest of Brussels resident Fayçal Cheffou were not substantiated by the ongoing inquiry. As a result, the subject has been released by the examining magistrate”.

Belgian media had identified the man in the hat filmed at Zaventem as Fayçal Cheffou, who claimed to be a freelance journalist.

A source close to the inquiry told AFP: “Investigators have established that he was not the ‘man in the hat’.”

With the manhunt still underway, police released fresh video of a man in a hat and white jacket pushing a trolley with a large bag through the departure hall, next to suicide bombers Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui.

Cheffou’s release comes as a new blow to an inquiry dogged by accusations that Belgium missed a series of leads in cracking down on a jihadist network linked to the Brussels bombings as well as the November Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

Mourners meanwhile held emotional Easter Monday prayers at a medieval cathedral in  central Brussels in memory of the 35 people killed and 340 injured in Belgium’s worst ever terror attacks.

Grieving airport personnel and members of the emergency services carried trays of full of candles at the cathedral of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule, and were applauded by the congregation.

“No violence in the name of God can be tolerated,” the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, Jozef de Kesel, told worshippers.

“Peace is more than just the absence of violence. There cannot be a real life together without a profound and sincere respect for others.”

Update on victims

Belgian officials said Monday that the death toll had climbed to 35 after four people died in hospital.

Following is an update of known fatalities. Details are sketchy in some cases, as the authorities have withheld names out of respect for families, and there may be some instances of dual nationalities.

  • US: Four fatalities

The US State Department on Sunday (27 March) confirmed the deaths of two more Americans, bringing the total to four.

An American couple who had been reported missing, Justin and Stephanie Shults, were confirmed dead by an employer and family on Saturday (26 March).

  • Belgium: Three

Belgian student Bart Migom, 21, had been travelling to see his American girlfriend in the United States when he was killed at Brussels airport, his college confirmed.

Civil servant Olivier Delespesse, and 20-year-old law student Leopold Hecht were reportedly killed in the metro blast.

  • Netherlands: Two

Sascha and Alexander Pinczowski, Dutch siblings who had been living in New York, were preparing to board a plane home when two suicide bombers struck at Zaventem airport.

  • Britain: One

Computer programmer David Dixon, a 51-year-old Brussels resident, had texted his aunt to reassure her he was safe after the airport blasts.

But he went missing and media reports said he appeared to have been on the metro when a suicide bomber struck.

The British government says seven other Britons were injured

  • China: One, according to the Chinese embassy.
  • France: One.

The French government says one Frenchman was killed and 12 other nationals were injured.

  • Italy: One

Patricia Rizzo, 48, had been working in Brussels for several months for the European Research Council Executive Agency (ERCEA) and was killed in the metro explosion.

  • Germany: One

A German citizen was among the dead, according to police.

  • Liberia: One

The Liberian foreign ministry identified the fatality as Elita Borbor Weah, who was based in the Netherlands. Dutch media previously identified her as a Dutch national aged 41, who was travelling to her stepfather’s funeral in the United States.

  • Morocco: One

A Moroccan citizen was also among the dead in the metro, Moroccan news agency MAP says.

  • Spain: One

Madrid confirmed the death of Jennifer Garcia Scintu, 29, a Spanish woman with Italian and German nationality, who was reportedly on her way to New York with her German husband. El Pais newspaper suggested she could be the German victim.

  • Sweden: One

Sweden said a Swedish woman in her 60s was among those killed at Zaventem airport.

  • Peru: One

Adelma Marina Tapia Ruiz, 37, a Belgium resident, was the first fatality to be identified in the airport attack.

Her husband and twin daughters had a miraculously lucky escape as he had run off after them as they played.

  • India: One

“It is with deep regret that we confirm the passing of our colleague Raghavendran Ganeshan in the terrible attack in Brussels,” Indian software giant Infosys wrote on Twitter late yesterday.

Ninety-six remain in hospital.

Brussels is still trying to get back on its feet, with the airport saying it would carry out a test run Tuesday to see if repair work in the wrecked departure hall was satisfactory, but it could not give a firm date for resuming services.

Belgian authorities are continuing to face criticism over whether they could have prevented the tragedy, as the links to the Paris attacks become clearer by the day.

European arrests

Bomb maker Laachraoui’s DNA was found on some of the explosives used in Paris.

Ibrahim El Bakraoui’s brother Khalid, who blew himself up on a Brussels metro train shortly after the airport blasts, is meanwhile believed to have rented a property linked to Paris prime suspect Salah Abdeslam.

Abdeslam was arrested in Brussels on 18 March just metres from his family home after four months on the run.

And Turkey accused Belgium last week of ignoring a clear and present danger after revealing it had deported Ibrahim El Bakraoui as a “terrorist fighter” last year after arresting him near the Syrian border.

Two Belgian ministers offered to resign after the Turkish link emerged.

Two Belgian ministers offered to resign over bomb suspect

Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign on Thursday (24 March) over the failure to track an Islamic State militant expelled by Turkey last year who blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday.

Prosecutors earlier said three men arrested in raids in Belgium at the weekend had been charged with “participation in the activities of a terrorist group” but that no direct link had been established with the Brussels attacks.

In the latest piece in the puzzle of the jihadist cross-border networks, police arrested a 32-year-old Frenchman in Rotterdam on Sunday, on suspicion of planning a terror attack, Dutch prosecutors said.

The man is thought to have been planning an attack in France in the name of the Islamic State group along with Reda Kriket, who was detained near Paris on Thursday, a French police source told AFP.

Belgian prosecutors at the weekend also charged two men with involvement in the Kriket plot, including one shot in the leg after a dramatic stand-off at a tram stop in Brussels on Friday.

An Algerian held in Italy as part of a probe into fake ID documents used by the Paris and Brussels attackers is still being interrogated, but refused to answer questions, a judicial source said.

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