Brussels terrorist attacks: Belgium frees man charged with terrorism, conceding new blunder

Brussels: Belgian authorities on Monday conceded another enormous blunder in their investigation into the attacks last week on Brussels. They freed a man they had charged with terrorism and murder, acknowledging that he had been mistakenly identified as a bomber in a dark hat and white coat in an airport surveillance photo.

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CCTV: Brussels attack suspect

Belgium's Federal Police release a 32-second video of a mysterious man in a hat suspected of having taken part in the March 22 bombing of Brussels Airport.

The man, who was arrested Thursday and charged Friday, was released after three days in custody, during which some officials publicly vilified him as a terrorist. On Monday, the police said that the real attacker remained at large and they issued a new plea to the public to help identify one of the men who blew up a departures area at Brussels Airport.

The release of the man - who has been identified by the Belgian news media and Belgian officials as Faycal Cheffou, who has called himself a freelance journalist - is a stunning setback for the Belgian authorities, who have struggled for more than a year to get a handle on the growing threat of Islamic State militants. Officials have acknowledged serious missteps, including a failure to piece together vital pieces of evidence that might have averted the attacks last week.

"The evidence that had led to the arrest of the man named Faycal C. was not confirmed by the evolution of the ongoing investigation," Thierry Werts, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, said in a statement. "Consequently, he has been freed by the investigative judge."

Cheffou had been picked out of a photographic lineup by a cabdriver who shuttled three men to Brussels Airport, where two of them - later identified as Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui - blew themselves up at 7.58am last Tuesday. El Bakraoui's younger brother, Khalid, blew himself up at 9.11am at the Maalbeek metro station.


Over the weekend, the authorities were said to be analysing DNA evidence to determine whether Cheffou was the third airport attacker. But without waiting for confirmation, Belgian officials spoke openly of Cheffou as a terrorist. On Twitter, Theo Francken, the state secretary for asylum and migration, called Cheffou "an extremist jihadi horror."

Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of the city of Brussels, the central borough of the 19 municipalities that make up the Belgian capital, said in an interview Saturday that Cheffou had been identified in a police photo line by the taxi driver, but added that the authorities were still waiting for DNA confirmation that Cheffou had been in the Brussels apartment where the bombs were assembled.

Mayeur added that he did not know whether Cheffou had been involved in terrorism, but did know him to be a local troublemaker who had repeatedly disrupted a camp of refugees in Park Maximilien near the Gare du Nord railway station.

Cheffou, he said, often harangued and got into fights with volunteers from Belgian non-governmental organisations, denouncing them for not being Muslims and urging migrants in their care to rebel. "He tried to get the refugees to turn against NGO's because they were 'nonbelievers,'" Mayeur recalled. Last September, after prosecutors declined to intervene, the mayor issued a municipal order banning Cheffou from the migrant encampment, which was later shut down.

The death toll from the attacks rose Monday to 35, as the authorities reported that four victims who had been hospitalised died from their injuries. The toll from Belgian health minister, Maggie De Block, did not include the two suicide bombers at Brussels Airport, near the town of Zaventem, nor the suicide bomber at the Maalbeek station.

On Monday, the Belgian police again asked for help identifying the airport attacker, and they released for the first time surveillance footage showing him and the two attackers who died. The silent footage, which appears to be slowed down, shows the three men pushing luggage carts with large black bags. The video focuses on the man in the white coat and dark hat and blurs out the rest. The man has a short black beard and also appears to be wearing glasses.

Also Monday, the Belgian authorities announced that they had charged three men who were detained Sunday with participating in the activities of a terrorist group.

The men - identified only as Yassine A., Mohamed B. and Aboubaker O. - were arrested in police raids in and around Brussels. It was not clear if they were connected to the attacks last Tuesday.

The Belgian police conducted 13 home searches Sunday - four in Mechelen, a town about 30 kilometres north of Brussels; one in Duffel, about 40 kilometres north of the capital; and eight in Brussels itself - and they arrested nine people; six were released after questioning.

The authorities across Europe have intensified counter-terrorism operations in the wake of the attacks, with arrests in at least five countries, some of them connected to the attacks in Brussels and others to the November 13 Paris attacks.

New York Times