The toll of deaths and casualties was climbing in Brussels this morning after several explosions rocked the city last night, Australian time, hitting Brussels’ Zaventem airport and a city metro station.
The blasts have killed at least 31 people and seriously injured hundreds more. Two explosions, thought to have been suicide bombers, rocked the departure hall at Brussels Zaventem airport.
Thousands of passengers have been stranded by the airport closure and spent the night at sports stadiums. The airport was still closed at 9am (AEST) this morning, Wednesday 23 March, and there was no word on when it would re-open. Border controls have been re-imposed and a traffic queue has built up at the Belgium/Netherlands border, stretching for kilometres as police conduct spot checks.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has advised travellers to reconsider their need to travel to Belgium “at this time”.
Footage of travellers running for their lives at the airport was quickly uploaded to social media.
Passengers were told to leave their hand luggage behind in the terminal but most ignored the advice and can be seen below fleeing with their luggage.
Belgian news sites reported many people injured in the airport’s departure hall, with early reports saying a bomb had gone off near the American Airlines desk. The Belga news agency reported shots being fired accompanied by shouts in Arabic before the two explosions. Reports said it was a suicide attack, the hallmark of Islamist terrorism. ISIS, the Islamist terror group, has claimed responsibility. The fact it chose the beginning of high season to attack may indicate it is targeting tourism.
Local media reported another explosion on a railway carriage at Maalbeek metro train station, a short distance from the European Parliament. The entire metro system in Brussels was shut down and the country placed on the highest level of terror alert.
Rail transport to Zaventem airport has been halted and people have been told not to come. All flights have been diverted. Eurostar yesterday cancelled all trains to and from Brussels.
DFAT issued the following travel advisory at about 9pm AEST:
Belgium has been subject to an apparent terrorist attack. Two explosions were reported at Brussels airport (Zaventum) on 22 March. Several people are reported dead and wounded. Flights in and out of the airport have been cancelled. Road and rail connections to the airport have been closed. Belgium has increased its National Threat Level to Level 4 of 4. There are reports of explosions at Maalbeek metro station in the EU district of central Brussels and all Brussels public transport (buses, trams, metro) has been shut down. We recommend you reconsider your need to travel to Belgium at this time. Australians in Brussels should remain attentive to their surroundings, avoid affected areas and follow the instructions of local authorities.
Belgian media circulated this CCTV image of suspected suicide bombers at Brussels airport before the blasts. The man in white at right is thought to have escaped when his bomb did not go off.
Security experts were last night discussing the possibility of making it harder to enter airports, by screening people and their luggage before they enter the airport, perhaps some distance away. This is already done at many airports in India and in other places including Nairobi in Kenya and in Moscow.
Brussels, gateway to Europe for many travellers and headquarters of the European Union, is trying desperately to cast aside its reputation as a hotbed of Islamist terror cells. It is having a hard time doing so.
A shootout in Brussels last Saturday morning (Australian time) saw heavily armed Belgian police storm a house in the predominantly Muslim Molenbeek neighbourhood of the city and arrest the most wanted man in Europe, Salah Abdeslam.
Abdeslam is believed to have masterminded the Paris suicide attacks but decided at the last minute not to blow himself up. He is thought be be the last surviving member of the 10-strong ISIS terror cell that carried them out. See: Tourism advisory, plea and shootout focus on Belgium. Obviously, other cells are still active.
The Molenbeek quarter, one of 19 municipalities in the Brussels metropolitan area, is a notorious hotbed of jihadist activity, even gaining the title “terrorist capital of Europe”.
The shooter from the May 2014 attack on Brussels’ Jewish Museum, Mehdi Nemmouche, lived in Molenbeek for a while, as did the man who fired on a French train last August, Ayoub El Khazzani. The terrorist who attacked the kosher supermarket in Paris in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in Paris last January, Amedy Coulibaly, bought his guns in Molenbeek.
Many Belgians were shocked a week or two ago to learn that over 440 Belgian citizens are said to have travelled to fight in the Syrian civil war, predominantly on the side of ISIS.
Brussels residents cannot believe what is happening to their country and its capital. The sense of shock has increased this morning.
Written by Peter Needham