By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Belgian officials have increased security and launched searches around the country after powerful bomb blasts at the main airport and a subway station in Brussels killed at least 34 people in attacks claimed by the extremist group Islamic State.
Belgium raised its terror alert to its highest level and dispatched 225 extra troops to Brussels following what Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called “violent, cowardly” terrorist attacks.”
More than 180 people were reported wounded in the attacks, with Health Minister Maggie de Block saying many were in serious condition.
Belgian security forces conducted raids in the Schaerbeek area of the Belgian capital and reportedly found explosives and an Islamic State (IS) flag.
Belgian media published a security camera picture showing three young men pushing trolleys laden with luggage at the airport.
According to the reports, two of then men are suspected of having blown themselves up while officials said they are “actively searching” for the third man as a suspected attacker.
An Islamic State website said its “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attack.
AMAQ, a news agency affiliated with Islamic State extremists, carried the claim of responsibility.
“Islamic State fighters carried out a series of bombings with explosive belts and devices on Tuesday, targeting an airport and a central metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital Brussels,” it said.
U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous attacks against innocent people, and EU leaders expressed anger over what Sweden’s prime minister called an “attack against democratic Europe.”
Public transport was shut down in Brussels, incoming planes and trains were diverted, and authorities urged residents to “stay where you are.” EU personnel were instructed to remain indoors, and flags outside the European Commission flew at half-staff.
EU President Donald Tusk said, “These attacks mark another low by the terrorists in the service of hatred and violence.
Photos posted on the Internet showed gruesome scenes of damage and destruction at the airport.
A security worker who helped carry the bodies of victims outside told Reuters that some of them had “their legs destroyed, as if the bomb came from a piece of luggage” on the floor.
Belgium has been in the spotlight since militants living there helped carry out coordinated attacks that killed 130 people in Paris on November 13.
The March 22 blasts came four days after Salah Abdeslam, the chief surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, was captured following after a shoot-out in Brussels. Belgian security forces had been on alert for any reprisal action.
Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur reported that 14 people were killed and 81 wounded at the airport, while others put the death toll there at 11.
One witness said the blasts sparked panic as parts of the building collapsed onto travelers.
“When I reached the arrivals hall downstairs, an entire side with glass panes collapsed, downstairs where the taxis are,” he told Belgian television channel RTBF. “It was complete chaos, some women were falling to the ground and crying. It was hell.”
Another witness, Zach Mouzoun, told France’s BFM television that the second explosion brought down ceilings and “there was blood everywhere.”
A doctor who treated 11 of the victims at the Gasthuisberg hospital in Leuven was quoted by Flemish-language broadcaster VTM as saying their wounds suggested at least one of the bombs contained nails.
Police said a Kalashnikov rifle and an unused explosive were also found at the airport.
The Belga news agency reported that the assailants fired shots and shouted words in Arabic before the explosions.
Passengers were led onto the tarmac and the Belgian crisis center urged people not to approach the airport.
Another explosion then struck the Maalbeek subway station, close to the EU institutions, during the morning rush hour.
Brussels Mayor Yvan Mayeur said at least 20 people died in the blast and 106 others were wounded, including 17 people with critical injuries.
A survivor fought tears as she told RTBF television about her ordeal.
“There was a big flash of light and the whole carriage exploded, the windows came down on us,” she said. “Everyone threw themselves on the ground.”
Brussels resident Joe Cook, who arrived at the station shortly after the blast, told RFE/RL that he saw commuters “in various states of shock.”
“Some were stumbling, some were lying down, some were being tended to by passersby and other folk,” he said.
EU Budget Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who also handles employee and security issues, wrote on Twitter that EU institutions were working together to ensure the security of their staff and urged all EU personnel to “stay home or inside buildings.”