Belgium launched a huge manhunt Tuesday after a series of bombings claimed by Daesh ripped through Brussels airport and a metro train, killing around 35 people in the latest attack to bring carnage to the heart of Europe.
Two massive suicide blasts by attackers with bombs in their bags hit the check-in hall at Zaventem Airport, strewing the scene with blood and mangled bodies and sending hundreds of terrified travellers fleeing in terror.
Belgian authorities released pictures of three of the suspected attackers pushing trolleys with their bombs through the terminal and said they were “actively searching” for the third whose bomb failed to go off.
Police helicopters hovered over the city late into the night and raids were under way across Belgium, prosecutors said, adding that a bomb, a Daesh flag and chemicals had been found in one apartment.
The fact that extremists were able to hit high-profile targets in Brussels, Europe’s symbolic capital, just months after Daesh militants killed 130 people in Paris, will raise fresh questions about the continent’s ability to cope with the terror threat.
It also underscores doubts about how Belgium has allowed extremism to develop unchecked, coming just four days after the arrest in Brussels of key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam after four months on the run.
“This is a day of tragedy, a black day,” Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, announcing three days of national mourning after the “deadliest attacks we have ever seen in Belgium”.
Belgian King Philippe condemned the “cowardly and odious” assault.
Daesh claimed the bombings, saying “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attacks against “the crusader state” of Belgium.
Leaders across Europe reacted with outrage, with the EU vowing to combat terrorism “with all means necessary” on a continent that has been on high alert for months.
“The whole of Europe has been hit,” said French President Francois Hollande, whose country is still reeling from November’s attacks.
Hundreds of flights and trains were cancelled Tuesday as security across Europe was tightened after the bombings, which Michel branded “blind, violent and cowardly”.
But as Belgium raised its terror alert to the maximum level four, he insisted that Belgium would not be cowed.
“People were just going to work, to school and they have been cut down by the most extreme barbarity,” Michel told a news conference. “We will continue to protect liberty, our way of life.”
About an hour after the airport blasts at around 8:00 am (0700 GMT), a third explosion rocked Maalbeek metro station, in the heart of the city’s EU quarter, just as commuters were making their way to work.
The city is the headquarters of both NATO and the European Union.
Belgian authorities published surveillance camera images showing the three male suspects of the airport attack– two have dark hair and were both wearing a glove on only one hand, and a third, being hunted by Belgian police, is wearing a hat and a white coat.
“They came in a taxi with their suitcases, their bombs were in their bags,” Zaventem mayor Francis Vermeiren said. “They put their suitcases on trolleys, the first two bombs exploded. The third also put his on a trolley but he must have panicked, it didn’t explode.”
Belgian authorities had been on alert after Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man, told investigators he had been planning an attack on Brussels.
Pierre Meys, spokesman for the Brussels fire brigade, told AFP at least 14 people had been killed at the airport, while Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur said “around 20” died in the metro.
Witnesses described horrific scenes at the airport, with victims lying in pools of blood, their limbs blown off.