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Terrorist Bombings Strike Brussels: What We Know

More than 30 people are dead and more than 200 wounded after explosions struck Brussels during the Tuesday morning rush hour, Belgian officials say. Two blasts hit the international airport; another struck a metro station. Belgium issued a Level 4 alert, denoting "serious and imminent attack."

"What we feared has happened — we were hit by blind attacks," Prime Minister Charles Michel said at a midday news conference Tuesday. At a later news conference, Michel said Belgium will defend its liberty and values, and he stressed the importance of returning to normal life in Brussels as fast as possible.

Hours after the blasts, Belgian federal police tweeted an image of a man suspected of being involved in the bombing, and asked the public, "Who recognizes this man?"

Investigators in Belgium are asking the public's help in identifying the man on the far right, who was seen at the Brussels airport before this morning's terrorist attack. This image, provided by the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels, shows three men suspected of taking part in the attack.
/ Belgian Federal Police via AP
Belgian Federal Police via AP
Investigators in Belgium are asking the public's help in identifying the man on the far right, who was seen at the Brussels airport before this morning's terrorist attack. This image, provided by the Belgian Federal Police in Brussels, shows three men suspected of taking part in the attack.

Wearing a jacket and hat, the man is seen in an image taken by a surveillance camera at the airport. Authorities say they are actively seeking him. The image is similar to a wider photograph of the same man alongside two other men, all three of them pushing luggage carts. Officials say that the other two men, both in black, may have acted as suicide bombers; Belgian media outlets have noted that each of them wears a single glove which, those outlets say, might hide a trigger for a bomb.

As of 4 p.m. local time, the Belgian Crisis Center reported that at least 10 people had died and 100 were wounded in the attack at the Zaventem airport, and that 20 people died at the Maelbeek metro station, where some 130 were wounded.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, in a statement released via the Amaq News Agency, a group that's been linked to the militant extremists. The statement blames Belgium for participating in the fight against ISIS and says that "several" fighters detonated explosive belts at the airport and train station.

According to media reports, Belgian federal prosecutors say a house search later in the day, in the Brussels neighborhood of Schaerbeek, "led to the discovery of an explosive device containing among other things nails." Investigators reportedly also found chemical products and an Islamic State flag.

NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston says that investigators have discovered additional detonators, ISIS flags and other such materials over the past week in raids across Belgium.

French President Francois Hollande said "terrorists struck Brussels, but it was Europe that was targeted — and all the world that is concerned."

The number of dead and wounded could rise, as Belgian emergency agencies are focused on responding to those in need. Information is still emerging about this attack, and some reports may later prove inaccurate. Here's what we know so far:

Brussels' Zaventem Airport

A suicide attacker struck around 8 a.m. local time, according to a federal prosecutor. The explosions hit near the departure gates, collapsing ceiling panels and shattering glass windows. The blasts sent smoke billowing from the airport and set off a panic as people ran from the airport with whatever they could carry.

A video from nearby in the terminal that's been aired on Belgian broadcaster VRT shows travelers cowering as dust and smoke fill the air and sirens blare. We'll warn you: The video contains a profanity and may be stressful to watch.

The facility was evacuated and closed, with emergency crews looking after the wounded and security personnel gathering any evidence that might provide details about those responsible.

The attack began after a burst of gunfire and yelling in Arabic, according to Belgian media outlets.

NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo was at the airport. He shared a photo on Facebook and wrote, "God is good. I am in Brussels Airport with this craziness. I am fine."

Maelbeek Station

Around 9 a.m. local time, an explosion struck a metro train in or near the Maelbeek station, causing chaos close to the European Union headquarters in the city's center.

The station is about 7 miles from the airport. Images of the aftermath of that attack show people running for safety along the tracks through a darkened and smoke-filled tunnel, after trains were halted.

To clarify information that went out in an NPR news alert earlier this morning: There have been at least three explosions — two at the airport and one at a train station. An early report suggested there were three explosions on the subway.

Accounts From The Scene

Gabriele Steinhauser, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal who's in Brussels, relayed witness accounts to NPR's Morning Edition:

Listen to the Story

"Parts of the ceiling fell down. There was a lot of water from pipes breaking. People who were there during the explosions said there were scenes of chaos. It took about 10 minutes for security personnel to arrive. There were mothers with children and old people who didn't know what to do.

"People felt like the authorities were badly prepared, and when they were led out of the airport they were led right through the place where the explosions happened. People say there was a lot of blood."

The Response

Explosives teams from the Belgian army detonated a suspicious package at the Zaventem airport early in the afternoon — and the federal Zuidertoren (South Tower) building in Brussels was evacuated after suspicious items were found in an underground parking lot, according to the national crisis center and the national news service.

Brussels was placed under lockdown, with all its tunnels closed to traffic and children ordered to stay in school through most of the day. The public transit system was also shut down. By 4:30 p.m. local time, Belgium's Crisis Center says, some of those tunnels had reopened to traffic, and many trains had resumed running.

The general lockdown order was also lifted and children were allowed to leave school, but officials maintained the Level 4 threat warning, and urged residents to be vigilant. They also said police and military forces will continue to bolster security in Brussels.

The city's main airport was closed for the day, and flights were rerouted to nearby cities. Eurostar train service between London and Brussels was also suspended.

Belgium's Crisis Center is urging residents not to use their phones, saying the system is saturated. Instead, they're asking people to rely on WiFi connections, text messages and social media to communicate.

Interior Minister Jan Jambon announced that Belgium will observe three days of mourning.

Beyond Belgium

Security officials in France and Germany are increasing their vigilance in the wake of today's attack, which follows five other violent attacks that have hit cities in Turkey, Africa and the Middle East in the past 10 days.

Today's attack also comes four days after Belgian and French police arrested Salah Abdeslam, a central suspect in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. As of Monday, authorities were still looking for his accomplices in that attack — including one man, Laachroui Najim, whose true identity was only recently revealed.

In Cuba, President Obama prefaced his public remarks with a mention of the attacks in Belgium, offering the support of the U.S. and saying, "This is yet another reminder that the world must unite ... in fighting against the scourge of terrorism."

At least one U.S. service member and his family were hurt in today's attack, NPR's Tom Bowman reports, citing officials with U.S. European Command. Tom says that no details are being released, with officials citing privacy concerns. The officials say the service member was stationed in the Netherlands.

The U.S. Embassy in Brussels urged American citizens to shelter in place Tuesday morning. European Union institutions were at an Orange alert level, with normal business suspended and restricted access.

Tonight, both the Eiffel Tower and the Brandenburg Gate will be lit in the black, yellow and red colors of Belgium's flag. And in London, the Belgian flag was raised alongside the Union Jack atop Downing Street this afternoon. Both are flying at half-staff.

In the U.S., officials and presidential candidates are also reacting to the attacks.

This is a developing story. Some things that get reported by the media will later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene. We will update as the situation develops.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Wagner
Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.