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Hunt on amid jihad call

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BRUSSELS, March 24, (RTRS): Belgian police were on Thursday hunting for a third man filmed with two Islamic State suicide bombers at Brussels airport as evidence piled up that the same jihadist network was involved in the deadly Paris attacks last November. With pressure mounting on Europe to improve cooperation against terrorism, EU interior and justice ministers were to hold emergency talks on a joint response to Tuesday’s bombings in Brussels, which killed at least 31 people and injured hundreds.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls led calls for a “strong European response”, but officials say many states, including France, withhold their most cherished data despite a mantra of willingness to share intelligence. The chief surviving suspect linking the Paris and Brussels attacks, French national Salah Abdeslam, 26, arrested in the Belgian capital last week, was remanded in custody until April 7 with two other suspects.

The public prosecutor said Abdeslam, who is in detention in a prison in Bruges in western Belgium, did not appear in person. His lawyer, Sven Mary, who requested the adjournment, said Abdeslam was no longer opposed to being extradited to France. “Salah Abdeslam has asked me to inform you that he wishes to leave for France as quickly as possible,” Mary told reporters at the courthouse, saying his client “wants to explain himself”.

Mary said Abdeslam was not aware of the plan to attack Brussels. Turkey’s president criticised Belgium for failing to track Brahim El Bakraoui, a convicted armed robber whom it expelled last year and who blew himself up at Brussels airport on Tuesday an hour before his brother Khalid, a fellow convict, killed about 20 people at Maelbeek metro station in the city centre. A Turkish government official said Brahim El Bakraoui was deported twice from Turkey in July and August after re-entering the country.

His initial deportation was based on police suspicion, conveyed to the Belgian and Dutch authorities, that he was a foreign militant fighter, another official said. Since he had committed no offence in Turkey he was deported to the country of his choice, the Netherlands. Belgium’s inner security cabinet was meeting on Thursday to discuss the matter.

Opposition lawmakers demanded an explanation in parliament. Belgium’s interior and justice ministers offered to resign on Thursday over a failure to track militants. Interior Minister Jan Jambon said Prime Minister Charles Michel had asked him to stay on. “In time of war, you cannot leave the field,” Jambon told VTM television. Justice Minister Koen Geens would also stay on, a ministry spokesperson said. Security sources told Belgian media the other suicide bomber at the airport was Najim Laachraoui, a veteran Belgian Islamist fighter in Syria suspected of making explosive belts for November’s Paris attacks, in which 130 people were killed by Brussels-based militants. The third suspect captured on airport security cameras pushing a baggage trolley into the departures hall alongside Laachraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui is now the target of a police manhunt. He has not been named.

The bespectacled man wearing a cream jacket and a black hat ran out of the terminal, federal prosecutors said, and a third suitcase bomb, the biggest of the three, exploded later as bomb disposal experts were clearing the area, causing no casualties. Meanwhile, Islamic State released a video on social media on Thursday calling on its followers to claim victory and wage jihad after deadly blasts in Brussels this week that the group said it had carried out.

In the footage, Islamic State noted that Belgium was part of a coalition fighting militants in the Middle East. It featured the training of Belgian militants suspected in the Nov. 13 shooting and suicide bombing rampage by Islamic State that killed 130 people in Paris.

“The crusaders aircrafts, including Belgium’s, continue to bomb Muslims in Iraq and the Levant in the night and day,” said the video. “Every Muslim who is well aware of the history of Islam, knows that the holy war against infidels is an integral part of Islam, and those who read history would know.” Islamic State controls large parts of Iraq and Syria and has a presence in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. A brother of Brussels suicide bomber Najim Laachraoui on Thursday condemned his actions, saying he had had no contact with him since he left for Syria. It was the fi rst public reaction from a family member of one of the Brussels attackers. Security sources have told local media that Najim Laachraoui, a 25-year-old Belgian, was one of Tuesday’s airport suicide bombers. He had left Brussels for Syria in February 2013.

His brother Mourad is a taekwondo athlete who has represented Belgium in European and world competitions, one of Belgium’s taekwondo federations, the ABFT, said on its website. “Mr Mourad Laachraoui fi rmly condemns his elder brother’s actions and the attacks in which he was involved in Belgium and in France,” the statement published by ABFT said.

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