Belgium was on the highest terror-alert level after three bombings in Brussels on Tuesday killed at least 31, injured more than 180 and raised fears of follow-up attacks.
Prime Minister Charles Michel, condemning the deadliest terror attack on Belgian soil ever as “a violent and cowardly” assault, deployed Belgium’s military to secure the capital after two explosions at the airport and a bombing at a subway station a short walk from the European Union’s headquarters.
“We are trying to stabilize the situation to assure security on other sites for which there is still concern,” Michel told reporters. “This is a dark moment for our nation. We need calm and solidarity.”
The synchronized attacks during the morning rush hour struck at the heart of the EU at a time when a deluge of refugees from the Middle East is testing the 28-nation bloc’s dedication to open borders and stirring up anti-foreigner demagoguery. Prime Minister David Cameron criticized the U.K. Independence Party for seeking to use the assaults to make the case for Britain to leave the EU. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is set to speak on the assaults later Tuesday, is fighting opponents within her own government pushing her to back away from her open-door policy for asylum seekers.
Attack on Freedom
The underground bombing wreaked carnage down the street from where EU leaders on Friday struck a deal with Turkey to address the region’s biggest refugee wave since World War II. The busy subway line is used by Belgian commuters, schoolchildren, tourists and bureaucrats from all over Europe — a cross-section of the global community.
“It seems clear that the attack targets — an international airport, a subway station near EU institutions — indicate that this terrorist attack wasn’t just aimed at Belgium, but at our freedom, our freedom of movement,” German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters in Berlin.
The timing, only four days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, believed to be the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris massacres, was a brazen signal of the unrelenting threat Europe faces even with some terrorist operatives behind bars. The attack also shows the vulnerability to terror in open societies such as Belgium, where authorities have been on alert since the November slaughter in the French capital after the discovery that some of the suspects had lived in Brussels.
Prosecutors didn’t immediately speculate on whether the Brussels bombings were revenge for Abdeslam’s arrest.
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the government “fears that there are still people at large.” Prosecutors declined to provide updates and urged the media to remain silent on the investigation “so as not to prejudice the ongoing probe.”
The Brussels transport network was shut down as police combed the airport and public sites for suspicious packages. Some schools, train stations and shopping centers were evacuated and emergency services struggled to cope.
Social Affairs Minister Maggie De Block estimated that 11 were dead and 81 injured at the airport, while Brussels mayor Yvan Mayeur put the subway death toll at around 20, with 106 injured. One of the airport attacks was a suicide bombing, the federal prosecutor said. No one claimed responsibility.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, on the road leading to the airport, raised its state of alert. Security was tightened at airports across Europe, and Belgium reinforced border checks with France. Belgian’s nuclear power plants increased security at the government’s behest, Belga reported, citing operator Engie SA.
By midday, Brussels had gone back into the same type of lockdown that accompanied a heightened state of alert for several days after the Paris attacks.
Belgian officials urged people to stay where they are and to communicate via social media to avoid putting excess strain on already overloaded mobile phone networks. Car and truck access to Brussels was curbed and some tunnels were shut. Access roads and rail lines were halted to the airport, in the suburb of Zaventem, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from central Brussels. The airport was shut for the day and incoming flights diverted.
The assaults shortly after 8 a.m. at the airport and an hour later on the subway appeared calculated to inflict the maximum possible damage. Panicked travelers were shown fleeing past the airport departure hall’s blown-out windows and through the rubble of ceiling tiles in television images.
Frederic Van Leeuw, the federal prosecutor, told reporters that emergency crews were carefully sifting through shredded suitcases for unexploded bombs. VRT news said a third explosive device was discovered at the airport.
Shortly after the subway explosion, smoke poured out of the Maelbeek metro station. Seriously injured, soot-covered people were taken out on stretchers and wailing passengers fled as police cordoned off the station.
“I heard the explosion,” said Frederick Willis, a Ghana native who got off the metro after dropping his son off at school. “It was very loud. I am looking for a place to hide.”