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Man arrested in deadly Brussels bombing released; death toll reaches 32

A man arrested as a suspect in the deadly bombings at a city airport and subway station has been released for lack of evidence, officials said Monday, as the death toll in the attacks climbs to 32.

Previous reports had the death toll at 35, but officials said Tuesday that 32 is expected to be the final total unless any of those still hospitalized die from their injuries, according to the Associated Press. The total does not include the three suicide bombers who participated in the attacks.

The man released Monday, identified by authorities only as Faycal C., had been widely named in media accounts as the likely missing airport bomber — the so-called “man in a hat” pictured in a video image wearing a dark hat and pushing a luggage trolley alongside two other men later identified as airport suicide attackers.

Authorities, however, never publicly alleged that Faycal C. was the third airport bomber. But he was the sole suspect in custody tied directly to the bombings, which triggered a wave of raids and apprehensions as officials responded to the latest terrorist assault to stun Europe.

The release would seem to signal that the third airport attacker remains a fugitive and that the massive manhunt for him will continue. Three confederates died in last week’s suicide attacks.

In recent days, Belgian authorities have arrested at least five other men on suspicion of terrorism, but it’s unclear if any were believed connected to last week’s attacks. At least one of those arrested was linked to a foiled terrorist strike in France, prosecutors said. Police have been conducting almost daily raids in Brussels and the city’s outskirts.

Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, remains on high alert. Soldiers with rifles guard train and bus stations and patrol city streets.

In announcing his release, authorities did not explicitly exonerate Faycal C., who was detained Thursday outside the federal judicial building downtown. He was formally arrested the following day and held on suspicion of murder, attempted murder and membership in a terrorist group.

A search of the man’s home yielded no sign of arms or explosives, authorities said Saturday.

“The indications that had led to the arrest of the man named Faycal C. were not supported by the evolution of the ongoing investigation,” Thierry Werts, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, said in a brief statement.

Police provided no further details.

The now-released suspect was identified in the press as Faycal Cheffou, described as an independent video journalist.

Belgian authorities have come under intense criticism for failing to do more to prevent the attacks and officials have acknowledged they made “mistakes,” especially a lack of follow-up in the case of a Belgian man expelled from Turkey last June on suspicion of terrorist activity.

That man, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, returned to Belgium and, in what officials conceded was a major oversight, was not questioned about his presence in Turkey, a chief transit zone for foreign militants seeking to fight in Syria.

El Bakraoui was later identified as one of the two attackers who detonated suicide bombs at the airport. His brother, Khalid El Bakraoui, was identified as the suicide attacker on the metro train. Both were Belgian citizens with previous convictions for violent crimes not related to terrorism, authorities said.

A large cell of mostly Belgian nationals of Moroccan descent, many with criminal records, appears to have been behind last week’s strikes and the attacks on Paris nightspots last November that left 130 people dead. The second Brussels airport suicide attacker, Najim Laachraoui, has been identified as a bomb-maker in the November attacks in Paris.

Laachraoui was among many cell members who had traveled to Syria and apparently joined Islamic State, the Al Qaeda offshoot that has taken credit for the Brussels and Paris attacks. Authorities theorize that the plans for mass murder in Europe were conceived in Syria and organized in Brussels, which has seen a higher proportion of its citizens travel to Syria and join militant factions than any other European nation.

On Monday, police disseminated video footage of the three bombers at the airport before the attacks in a bid to seek public help in identifying the fugitive. Previously, authorities had circulated only the lone image from the closed circuit camera.

In the footage, the third attacker appears of average height, sports a goatee and dark-rimmed glasses, and wears a light jacket and a black hat. His face is largely obscured. It was not clear how he survived the attack. Speculation has centered on the possibility that the bomb he took to the airport failed to go off and he fled.

Special correspondent Arthur Debruyne contributed to this report.

MORE ON THE BRUSSELS ATTACKS

3 men arrested in Belgium charged with terrorist offenses

Injured Indian flight attendant, a symbol of Brussels attacks, is 'out of danger,' family says

Extremist cell behind attacks in Brussels and Paris is being 'annihilated'

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

11:34 a.m. March 29: This article has been updated with clarification on the current death toll.

3:36 p.m.: This article has been updated with further details on the released suspect.

7:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with a new death toll and a report that one of the men previously detained has been released by a judge.

4:37 a.m.: This article has been updated with suspect names and additional details.

This article was originally published at 2:32 a.m. March 28.

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