BRUSSELS // Belgian police were hunting for two suspects still at large on Thursday after the Brussels bombings as ministers under fire for intelligence failings over the attacks admitted “errors” and offered to resign.
Meanwhile, key Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam insisted he was unaware of plans to strike the Belgian capital.
Grieving Belgians observed a minute of silence on the third and final day of mourning for the 31 people killed in Tuesday’s attacks on the international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the symbolic heart of Europe, putting security agencies across the continent on edge.
Several hundred people gathered at the central Place de la Bourse square, strewn with candles, balloons and flowers as flags from several nations fluttered from the columns of the stock exchange building.
“Our love for Brussels is stronger than terror,” read one banner held by a grieving young couple.
As pressure mounted on Belgium’s government over claims it ignored the deportation of airport bomber Ibrahim El Bakraoui from Turkey in 2015 as a “foreign terrorist fighter”, the interior and justice ministers tendered their resignations.
"There were errors at Justice and with the Belgian liaison officer in Turkey," interior minister Jan Jambon was quoted as telling the country's Le Soir newspaper on Thursday, confirming that he and justice minister Koen Geens had both offered to quit.
Prime minister Charles Michel, who turned down their offers, pledged the government would “shed light” on the handling of the attacks, given that three of the perpetrators were already known to police.
The Belgian blunders have implications for the rest of Europe, with evidence deepening by the day that both the Brussels and Paris attacks were the work of a huge extremist cell based out of Brussels.
Police arrested Abdeslam just around the corner from his family home in Brussels on Friday, after he spent four months on the run following the attacks on Paris which killed 130 people.
His lawyer, Sven Mary, said on Thursday that his client, the last known survivor of the 10 men who carried out the bloody assault on the French capital, no longer wanted to fight extradition to Paris.
Asked if Abdeslam had prior knowledge of Tuesday’s assault on Brussels, Mr Mary replied: “He didn’t know it”.
However Abdeslam is said to have links to Ibrahim El Bakraoui and his brother Khalid, who bombed Maalbeek metro station.
A huge manhunt is already under way for a third attacker at Brussels airport, a man wearing a hat seen on security footage with Ibrahim El Bakraoui and a man identified as Paris bomb-maker Najim Laachraoui, but whose bomb did not go off.
But Belgian authorities are now also hunting a man with a large bag seen talking to Khalid El Bakraoui on CCTV footage at Maalbeek station, who then did not get on to the train.
Despite earlier saying the El Bakraoui brothers were only known for criminal activity, Belgian prosecutors admitted on Thursday that they had issued an international warrant for Khalid in December for terrorism in relation to the Paris attacks.
They also confirmed that Khalid rented out a flat used by the Paris cell in the Belgian city of Charleroi, while he is further reported to have hired a Brussels apartment raided in the hunt for Abdeslam last week.
The attacks have stunned Brussels, the symbolic heart of Europe and home to the headquarters of the EU and Nato.
The city remained on maximum alert on Thursday with soldiers in camouflage standing guard outside embassies and government offices and underground rail services cut between 7pm and 7am, forcing commuters to scramble for the last trains home.
Meanwhile, Brussels airport will remain closed to passenger flights until at least Sunday, the airport operator said, extending the shutdown by another day.
Passengers forced to leave luggage behind when fleeing the airport can now collect it from the cargo section of the airport, it added.
EU justice and interior ministers convened later on Thursday in Brussels for an emergency meeting to show “solidarity” to Belgium and work out a plan to address the threat to Europe posed by extremists.
* Agence France-Presse