Islamic State claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital on Tuesday which killed at least 34 people.
Police issued a wanted notice for a young man pictured pushing a laden luggage trolley at the airport where two others were suspected of blowing themselves up.
The coordinated assault triggered security alerts across Europe and drew global expressions of support, four days after Brussels police had captured the prime surviving suspect in Islamic State’s attacks on Paris last November.
Belgian security officials made little comment but U.S. officials said that while the attacks may have been triggered by the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the level of organization involved suggested that they had previously been in preparation.
A witness said he heard shouts in Arabic and shots shortly before two blasts struck a packed airport departure lounge at Zaventem airport.
Belgian media published a security camera picture of three young men pushing laden luggage trolleys. Police later issued the same photograph, showing only one of the three, saying the unidentified man in a hat and wearing glasses was a suspect.
“If you recognise this individual or if you have information on this attack, please contact the investigators,” the notice read. “Discretion assured.”
Police operations were under way at several points in the city but a lockdown imposed immediately after the attacks was eased and commuters and students headed home as public transport partially reopened.
Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility: “We promise the crusader alliance against the Islamic State that they will have black days in return for their aggression against the Islamic State,” the jihadist group said.
Belgium, home to the European Union and the headquarters of the NATO military alliance, has sent warplanes to take part in operations against Islamic State in the Middle East.
Austrian Horst Pilger, who was awaiting a flight with his family when the attackers struck, said his children had thought fireworks were going off, but he instantly knew an assault was underway.
“My wife and I both thought ‘bomb’. We looked into each other’s eyes,” he told Reuters. “Five or 10 seconds later there was a major, major, major blast in close vicinity. It was massive.”
Pilger, who works at the European Commission, said the whole ceiling collapsed and smoke flooded the building.
Security services found and destroyed a third bomb after two blasts at the airport killed at least 10 people and injured around 100, the provincial governor of Brabant Flanders said. Belgian media gave death tolls as high as 14 at the airport.
The metro station blast killed a further 20 people and injured roughly 130, according to a provisional toll from the national crisis response centre.
U.S. President Barack Obama led calls of support to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel after Brussels had gone into a state of virtual lock-down.
“We must be together regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism,” Obama told a news conference in Cuba. “We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world.”
Michel spoke at a Brussels news conference of a “black moment” for his country. “What we had feared has come to pass.”
The blasts occurred after the arrest in Brussels of a suspected participant the Paris attacks that killed 130 people. Belgian police and combat troops on the streets had been on alert for reprisal but the attacks took place in crowded areas where people and bags are not searched.
All public transport in Brussels was initially shut down, as it was in London during 2005 Islamist militant attacks there that killed 52. Authorities appealed to citizens not to use overloaded telephone networks, extra troops were sent into the city and the Belgian Crisis Centre, clearly wary of a further incident, appealed to the population: “Stay where you are.”
Brussels airport will remain closed on Wednesday, its chief executive Arnaud Feist told reporters.
Public broadcaster VRT said police had found a Kalashnikov assault rifle next to the body of an attacker at the airport. Such weapons have become a trademark of Islamic State-inspired attacks in Europe, notably in Belgium and France, including on Nov. 13 in Paris.
Alphonse Youla, 40, who works at the airport, told Reuters he heard a man shouting out in Arabic before the first explosion. “Then the glass ceiling of the airport collapsed.”
“I helped carry out five people dead, their legs destroyed,” he said, his hands covered in blood.
Others said they also heard shooting before the blasts.
A witness said the blasts occurred at a check-in desk.
Video showed devastation in the hall with ceiling tiles and glass scattered across the floor. Bloodied bodies lay around.
Some passengers emerged from the terminal with blood spattered over their clothes. Smoke rose from the building through shattered windows and passengers fled down a slipway, some still hauling their bags.
Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, all wary of spillover from conflict in Syria, were among states announcing extra security measures. Security was tightened at the Dutch border with Belgium.
The blast hit the train as it left Maelbeek station, close to European Union institutions, heading to the city center.
VRT carried a photograph of a metro carriage at a platform with doors and windows completely blown out, its structure deformed and interior mangled and charred.
A local journalist tweeted a photograph of a person lying covered in blood among smoke outside the station, on the main Rue de la Loi avenue which connects central Brussels with the EU institutions. Ambulances were ferrying the wounded away and sirens rang out across the area.
“We are at war and we have been subjected to acts of war in Europe for the last few months,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said.
Train services on the cross-channel tunnel from London to Brussels were suspended. Britain is advising its citizens to avoid all but essential travel to Brussels, Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman said.
Security services have been on a high state of alert across western Europe for fear of militant attacks backed by Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attack.
While most European airports are known for stringent screening procedures of passengers and their baggage, that typically takes place only once passengers have checked in and are heading to the departure gates.
European stocks fell after the explosions, particularly travel sector stocks including airlines and hotels, pulling the broader indices down from multi-week highs. Safe-haven assets, gold and government bonds rose in price.
The attacks appeared to be linked to the arrest of French citizen Salah Abdeslam – the prime surviving suspect for the Paris attacks on a stadium, cafes and a concert hall – who was captured by Belgian police after a shootout on Friday.
Belgium’s Interior Minister, Jan Jambon, said on Monday the country was on high alert for a revenge attack.
Pope Francis on Tuesday in Vatican City, expressed his “deepest sympathy’’ to those affected by the deadly terrorist bombings in Brussels.
His Holiness Pope Francis entrusts to God’s mercy those who died and he prays for those who have lost relatives,’’ a statement says.
Francis expressed his deepest sympathy to the injured and their families, and all those who contribute to relief efforts, asking the Lord to bring them comfort and consolation in the ordeal.
“The Holy Father again condemns the blind violence which causes so much suffering and imploring from God the gift of peace.
“He entrusts on the bereaved families and the Belgians the benefit of divine blessings,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, EU Foreign Policy Chief, Federica Mogherini, broke down in tears at a press conference in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, held in the aftermath of the Brussels terrorist attacks.
Mogherini commended the Jordanian’s message and described it as an Islam message of peace, dialogue and cooperation.
“This is what we need in this moment here in the region and in Europe.
“I will stop here, you will understand this, today is a difficult day,’’ she said.
Mogherini was later overwhelmed by tears as Judeh thanked and consoled her.
Other world leaders expressed concern over the multiple blasts.
British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in London expressed displeasure at the blasts and promised that Britain would do everything they could to help.
Russian President, Vladimir Putin, strongly condemned the explosions in Brussels and assured the Belgian people of solidarity in times of difficulty.
Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Putin has already sent and expressed condolences to Belgium in connection with the death of civilians in a series of explosions in Brussels.
Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, also described the blasts as an attack against European democracy.
He said in a statement “we will never accept that terrorists attack our open societies.’’
Danish Prime Minister, Lars Loekke Rasmussen, also denounced the explosions as a “despicable attack’’, saying that his thoughts were with the victims and their families.
The chief of the NATO military alliance, whose headquarters are about 5 kilometres away from the Brussels airport, said the killings were “an attack on our values and on our open societies.’’
NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, said in a statement that terrorism would not defeat democracy and take away the freedoms.
He said the NATO headquarters security alert has also been increased.
French President, Francois Hollande, held an emergency meeting with top ministers, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
“We are faced with a global threat. The war against terrorism must be conducted across Europe,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, the Danish police are increasing their presence in key places in Denmark’s capital of Copenhagen in the wake of the Brussels attacks.
“We are aware of what has happened in Brussels. Therefore, you will meet more police at the airport and key points in Copenhagen,’’ the Copenhagen Police said.
Copenhagen Airport also said that police and security have increased patrols due to the explosions in Brussels.
In addition, all flights from Copenhagen Airport to Brussels have been cancelled until further notice.
According to Belgian federal prosecutor and the official figures provided by STIB, there are 23 deaths at Brussels airport explosions and 15 deaths at a metro station explosion.
President Muhammadu Buhari also commiserated with the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel and Belgians over the loss of lives in the terrorist attacks.
The President condoled with the people in a statement in Abuja on Tuesday by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina.
The statement quoted Buhari as he joined other leaders across Europe and the rest of the world in condemning the Tuesday atrocious terrorist attacks.
He assured Prime Minister Michel and the people of Belgium that “having suffered the horror and anguish of incessant terrorist attacks over several years,
Nigeria stands in full solidarity with them on this day of national pain and trauma.’’
He maintained that the appalling attack on Brussels reinforced the need for greater international cooperation to effectively confront and destroy global terrorism and its perpetrators.
The President assured the global community that under his leadership, Nigeria would continue to work with other countries of the world to ensure that “terrorism never triumphs over free, peaceful and law-abiding nations and people of the world.’’
He wished the more than 100 persons injured in the attacks speedy recovery.