3 men arrested in Belgium charged with terrorist offenses

Three suspects detained earlier this week have been officially charged with terrorist activities, prosecutors in Belgium said Saturday, as investigators in this tense capital continue to track down leads from the deadly bombings targeting the airport and metro.

Media reports here linked one of the three men to Tuesday’s suicide attack at the Brussels airport, but there was no official confirmation from the authorities.

A suspect who is believed to have escaped from the scene has been the focus of a major police manhunt.

At least four Islamist extremists took part in the bombings at the airport and on a crowded metro train Tuesday that together killed 31 people and injured more than 250 in the latest terror strikes to stun Europe. Three suicide bombers are known to have died in the attacks, authorities say.

Four Americans have been confirmed as among the dead. Justin Shults and his wife, Stephanie, were killed in the bombing at the airport, according to a statement issued Saturday by his employer, Clarcor. Shults, 30, who was originally from Gatlinburg, Tenn., and his wife, a Lexington, Ky., native, had lived in Brussels since 2014 and were reportedly dropping Stephanie's mother off at the airport when the bombs detonated.

A brother and sister from New York, Alexander Pinczowski, 29, and Sascha Pinczowski, 26, also died at the airport, officials confirmed Friday.

Organizers called off a public “march against fear” scheduled for Easter Sunday in Brussels at the request of Belgian authorities. The city remains on high alert, and officials asked that the march be canceled so that police could focus on the ongoing investigation.

Belgian prosecutors did not specify what role any of the three suspects now under arrest may have played in this week’s strikes or in any other plots.

In a statement Saturday, the federal prosecutor’s office said the investigation of the Brussels attacks had resulted in the formal arrest of a man identified only as Faycal C. He was placed in custody on suspicion of “participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist killings and attempted terrorist killings.”

A search of the suspect’s home turned up no arms or explosives, prosecutors said. The suspect was picked up on Thursday near the main justice building in downtown Brussels.

Belgian news outlets have cited sources saying that Faycal C. was the accomplice who escaped from the airport on Tuesday. Various media accounts here identified the man as Faycal Cheffou, described as a freelance video journalist.

Prosecutors identified the two other suspects charged with "participation in the activities of a terrorist group" as Rabah N. and Aboubakar A. The arrest of Rabah N. was linked to an arrest in France on Thursday of a suspect allegedly plotting an attack in that country. No further details about the men were released.

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A fourth man swept up in a series of raids in recent days, identified only as Abderamane A., had his detention extended for another 24 hours, authorities said.

Investigators believe that a large cell of Belgian and French nationals, mostly of Moroccan ancestry, was behind both this week’s attacks in Belgium and last November’s strikes on Paris nightspots that killed 130 people. The Paris killing rampage may have been conceived and plotted in Belgium, authorities say.

On Friday, Belgian prosecutors finally confirmed the most definitive link to date between the Brussels and Paris attacks, declaring that one of the two suicide bombers at the airport was Najim Laachraoui, 24, a Belgian fugitive who had traveled to Syria in 2013.

His DNA was also found on two of the bombs used in the Paris attacks, the prosecutors said. U.S. authorities had already said that Laachraoui, an electrical engineer and suspected bomb-maker, was a key participant in both the Brussels and Paris assaults.

Belgian authorities, facing considerable criticism for what some call their lax handling of the terrorist threat, have been under pressure to find the missing airport attacker.

The normally staid capital, which is also the de facto capital of the European Union, has seen near-daily police raids of homes by anti-terror police wearing ski masks and toting rifles.

The escaped airport plotter was recorded on closed-circuit television moments before Tuesday’s attack, wearing a tan jacket and dark cap as he pushed a luggage trolley alongside two other men later identified as suicide bombers. Authorities released the grainy image in a bid to help find the fugitive.

It was unclear if he also intended to blow himself up but backed out at the last moment, or his device failed, or whether the plan called for him to depart from the airport after leaving a bag of bomb materials behind.

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On Friday, Belgian police swept through several neighborhoods in the capital, arresting three suspects.

One of them was shot in the leg as he was taken into custody in broad daylight at a tram stop in the Schaerbeek district, the same neighborhood where the airport bombers had turned a rented flat into an apparent bomb factory, authorities said. Police say the apartment, which was discovered after the bombings, also contained a flag of Islamic State, the Al Qaeda breakaway group that has claimed credit for the Brussels attacks and last November’s mayhem in Paris.

In dramatic amateur footage purporting to show Friday’s arrest in Schaerbeek, police with rifles drawn are seen approaching a man who is lying, apparently injured, on a tram platform littered with broken glass. Police escort a child away from the man before backing off.

The man is seen clutching a bag as a bomb-disposal robot approaches. Witnesses quoted in local media said the robot removed the bag from the scene.

Police later dragged the man away; reports indicated he had been shot in the leg. Several explosions heard in the area were described as controlled detonations.

On Saturday, the prosecutor’s office identified the man as Abderamane A. His detention was extended 24 hours but no formal charges had yet been brought against him, according to prosecutors.

Belgian officials said Friday’s raids were not linked to Tuesday’s attacks, but rather to a foiled plot in France disclosed Thursday as police outside Paris arrested Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old French citizen with links to French-Belgian Islamist extremist networks.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the arrest disrupted a plot that was in its “advanced stages.”

Last year, Kriket was convicted in absentia in a terrorism case in Belgium along with Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian national who later was named as the ringleader of last November’s attacks in Paris. Abaaoud was killed in a shootout with French police days after the November attacks.

In the wake of this week’s bombings, Belgian authorities have come under withering criticism for the nation’s failure to thwart the assaults despite numerous signs of a homegrown terrorist network on Belgian soil. The prime minister turned down offers from two ministers to resign after reports surfaced that one of the airport suicide bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, had been expelled from Turkey in June on suspicion of terrorist activity, but the Belgian authorities had not taken any action against him.

During a Belgian parliamentary commission hearing Friday, Interior Minister Jan Jambon — one of the Cabinet members whose offer to resign was turned down — said a Belgian federal police liaison officer in Turkey had made a “serious blunder” by not following up on the case. The officer, who was not identified, would face disciplinary measures, the minister said.

Special correspondent Arthur Debruyne in Brussels and Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

For more news on the attacks in Belgium, follow @mcdneville on Twitter.


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


7:06 p.m.: This article was updated with the another American confirmed as among the dead.

5:24 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details about the dead Americans.

3:38 p.m.: This article has been updated with a Tennessee native identified as one of those killed at the Brussels airport.

12:07 p.m.: This article has been updated with official charges brought against the three suspects.

This article was originally published at 11:05 a.m.