BRUSSELS // At least 31 were killed in explosions, at least one likely caused by a suicide bomber, that rocked the Brussels airport and subway system on Tuesday, prompting a lockdown of the Belgian capital and heightened security across Europe.
Belgian health minister Maggie de Block said that 11 people were killed and 81 injured when two explosions hit the departures area of Brussels’ Zaventem airport during the busy morning rush, according to Belgian media.
The mayor of Brussels said that at least 20 people were killed in the explosion on a subway train attack near the European Union headquarters in Brussels.
“According to initial figures, there are around 20 dead with another 106 wounded, 17 of them gravely and another 23 seriously,” Yvan Mayeur said, describing the scene at Maalbeek station as “very chaotic”.
Belgium raised its terror alert to its highest level, diverting arriving planes and trains and ordering people to stay where they were. Airports across Europe tightened security.
The explosions came just days after Salah Abdeslam, the main suspect in the November 13 Paris attacks, was arrested in Brussels.
Abdeslam told authorities he had created a new network and was planning new attacks.
At the Brussels airport, two explosions splattered blood across the departure lounge and collapsed the ceiling. Witnesses said that one occurred at an excess baggage payment counter and the other near a Starbucks cafe. All flights were cancelled, arriving planes and trains were diverted and Belgium’s terror alert level was raised to its highest level.
Marie-Odile Lognard, a traveller who was lining up in the departures hall for a flight to Abu Dhabi, told BFM television that people panicked after the first explosion about 20 metres from her and that a second explosion about 15 seconds later caused parts of the ceiling to collapse.
Authorities told people in Brussels to stay where they were, bringing the city to a standstill. Airport security was also tightened in Paris, London and other European cities.
European security officials have been braced for a major attack for weeks, and warned that ISIL was actively preparing to strike. Abdeslam’s arrest on Friday heightened those fears, as investigators said many more people were involved in the November attacks that killed 130 people in Paris than originally thought, and that some are still on the loose.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks.
Zach Mouzoun, who arrived on a flight from Geneva about 10 minutes before the first blast, told BFM television that the second, louder explosion brought down ceilings and ruptured pipes, mixing water with victims’ blood.
“It was atrocious. The ceilings collapsed,” he said. “There was blood everywhere, injured people, bags everywhere.”
“We were walking in the debris. It was a war scene,” he said.
Near the entrance to the Maalbeek subway station, not far from the headquarters of the European Union, rescue workers set up a makeshift treatment center in a pub. Dazed and shocked morning travellers streamed from the metro entrances as police tried to set up a security cordon.
“The Metro was leaving Maalbeek station for Schuman when there was a really loud explosion,” said Alexandre Brans, 32, wiping blood from his face. “It was panic everywhere. There were a lot of people in the metro.”
Francoise Ledune, a spokeswoman for the Brussels Metro, said on BFM television that there appeared to have been just one explosion, in a car that was stopped at Maalbeek.
First responders ran through the street outside with two people on stretchers, their clothes badly torn.
The explosions at the airport hit at the middle of the busiest time there. Smoke was seen billowing out of the terminal.
Amateur video shown on France’s i-Tele television showed passengers including a child running with a backpack dashing out of the terminal in different directions. Another image showed a security officer patrolling inside a hall with blown-out paneling and what appeared to be ceiling insulation covering the floor.
Marc Noel, 63, was about to board a Delta flight to Atlanta, to return to his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A Belgian native, Mr Noel says he was in an airport shop buying automobile magazines when the first explosion occurred about 50 yards away.
“People were crying, shouting, children. It was a horrible experience,” he said. He said his decision to buy the magazines might have saved his life. “I don’t want to think about it, but I would probably have been in that place when the bomb went off.”
With three runways in the shape of a “Z,” the airport connects Europe’s capital to 226 destinations around the world and handled nearly 23.5 million passengers in 2015.
Passengers were led onto the tarmac and the crisis center urged people not to come to the airport.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press