BRUSSLES – Police are holding six people following a series of raids in Brussels over the attacks on the city’s airport and Metro system.
The arrests on Thursday night took place amid the hunt for at least one attacker at large and an unknown number of accomplices.
Belgian prosecutors said the raids targeted central Brussels, Jette and the Schaerbeek neighbourhood, where police earlier found a huge stash of explosives and bomb-making material in an apartment used by the attackers.
Prosecutors would not comment on reports that a fifth attacker may also be at large – a man seen on surveillance cameras in the Brussels Metro carrying a large bag alongside one of the suicide bombers.
Meanwhile Belgium’s prime minister refused to accept the resignations of his justice and interior ministers despite increasing evidence of intelligence and police failures to prevent Tuesday’s suicide bombings.
Authorities lowered Belgium’s terror-threat level by one notch, although they said the situation remained grave and another attack was “likely and possible”.
Belgium had been on its highest yet alert since the bombings in Zaventem Airport and Maelbeek underground station that killed 31 people and wounded 270.
“We don’t have to be proud about what happened,” justice minister Koen Geens said of the government’s failures to halt the attacks. “We perhaps did things we should not have done.”
Less than a mile from the bombed station, European justice and home ministers held an emergency meeting where they condemned the “terrorist acts” as “an attack on our open, democratic society”. They also urged the European parliament to adopt an agreement allowing authorities to exchange airport passenger data.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Brussels on Friday for counter-terrorism talks with EU and Belgian officials as a manhunt continued for one of the Brussels airport attackers who was recorded on a surveillance video and had fled the scene.
Authorities have linked the Brussels bombings to the Paris attacks that left 130 dead. Both appeared to have been carried out by the same Belgium-based Islamic State cell.
Prosecutors have said at least four people were involved in the Brussels bloodshed, including brothers Ibrahim and Khalid El Bakraoui, identified as suicide bombers. European security officials identified another suicide bomber as Najim Laachraoui, a suspected bomb maker for the Paris attacks.
Khalid El Bakraoui blew himself up on the train, while Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Laachraoui died in the airport.
It is clear that some of the Brussels attackers had been on the run from authorities in France and Belgium but were still able to hide in safe houses, assemble bombs and carry out linked attacks.
“If you put all things in a row, you can ask yourself major questions,” about the government’s performance, said interior minister Jan Jambon, who along with Mr Geens had tendered his resignation.
Notable among the questions were those raised by Turkey’s announcement that it had warned Belgium last year that Ibrahim El Bakraoui had been flagged as a “foreign terrorist fighter”.
But prime minister Charles Michel asked Mr Jambon and Mr Geens to stay on, given the current challenge the government is facing.
Turkey said on Wednesday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui was apprehended in June 2015 near Turkey’s border with Syria and deported to the Netherlands. But he was later freed by the Dutch for lack of proof of his involvement with jihadis.
Mr Geens, asked on a Belgian TV news show who was to blame for the failure to follow up on the Turkish warning, said: “It is clear it is not one single person, but it is true that we could have expected from Ankara or Istanbul a more diligent communication, we think, that perhaps could have avoided certain things.”
“Our own services should perhaps have been more critical about the place where the person had been detained,” he added, referring to Turkey’s border area with Syria.
“When someone is arrested there in a city few people know, it is clear enough for insiders that it could be a terrorist.
“Here, though, he was not known as a terrorist. It is the only moment we could have linked him to it. And that moment, perhaps, we missed.”
The minister acknowledged that “we have to be very self-critical”, but added that “such events have also happened in nations with the best intelligence services in the world”, pointing to the September 11 2001, attacks in the United States.
Authorities had been unable to find Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris ringleaders and described as one of Europe’s most wanted men, until a breakthrough led them to a Brussels apartment where he was arrested on Friday.
The federal prosecutors’ office said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented a house used as a hideout for the Paris attackers and that he had been hunted by police since December.
Meanwhile Abdeslam’s lawyer Sven Mary, who had initially vowed to fight extradition to France for the Paris attacks, said he now wanted to be sent there as soon as possible.
Mr Mary, said Abdeslam “wants to explain himself in France, so it’s a good thing”. He said the extradition process should be completed by mid-April.
In France, officials said a man detained in a counter terrorism raid in a Paris suburb has connections to the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks.
They said said the man detained on Thursday in Argenteuil is Reda Kriket, a 34-year-old Frenchman wanted since January on suspicion of links to terrorism.
A Belgian official said Kriket was convicted in absentia in July along with Abdelhamid Abaaoud and others for being part of a recruiting network for jihad in Syria.
Authorities have identified Abaaoud as the ringleader of the November 13 attacks in Paris. He died in a police raid a few days later.
France’s interior minister said the man detained in Argenteuil was in the “advanced stages” of a plot to attack the country. He said there was no evidence “at this stage” to link him to last year’s Paris attacks or this week’s attacks in Brussels.