22 March 2016: The day Belgium was rocked by the deadliest terror attack in its history

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On Tuesday 22 March 2016 at 7:58 am, two terrorists detonated suicide vests in the departure hall of Brussels Airport. It marked the beginning of a long, frightening day that left 32 dead and some 340 injured. Now Belgium embarks on its biggest ever trial, with ten defendants facing prosecution for the atrocities carried out almost seven years ago.

That Tuesday morning in 2016, Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Najim Laachraoui and Mohamed Abrini left the Brussels municipality of Schaerbeek to Brussels airport in Zaventem, their suitcases packed with explosives. After French and Belgian authorities had spent months hunting members of the terror cell responsible for the 2015 Paris attacks, those who had evaded capture turned their sights on Belgium. Salah Abdeslam, then one of the most wanted terrorists in Europe for his role in the Paris attacks, had been arrested in Molenbeek several days earlier on 18 March.

The explosions in the airport departure hall wreaked death and destruction. El Bakraoui and Laachraoui were killed in the attack. Abrini abandoned his explosives-filled luggage and fled from the airport amid the crowd. He returned to Schaerbeek on foot.

At 9:11 am, another bomb exploded about ten kilometres from the airport in the Brussels metro station of Maelbeek, near the European district. Khalid El Bakraoui, Ibrahim's younger brother, detonated his explosives among the many commuters making their way to work. The lethal attack also claimed many victims.

The entire Belgian capital shut down that day. Belgium’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis raised the country’s terror level from three to four – the highest level. People were urged to stay inside their homes. Meanwhile, emergency services recovered the bodies and transferred hundreds of injured people to various hospitals in Brussels and the rest of the country.

That same morning, the taxi driver who had taken Ibrahim El Bakraoui, Laachraoui and Abrini to the airport went to the police. The information he provided led investigators to the safe house the three suspects had left that morning on Max Roosstraat in Schaerbeek. There, police discovered equipment that could have been used to make more explosive devices.

In the afternoon, images surfaced of Abrini, at that point known only as “the man in the hat”, fleeing on foot. He was eventually apprehended in the Brussels municipality of Anderlecht on 8 April. Police also arrested Osama Krayem on the same day. He had been filmed fleetingly exchanging words with Khalid El Bakraoui at the Pétillon metro station just minutes before the Maelbeek attack.

The worst terror attacks Belgium has ever known took a severe toll: 32 people lost their lives and around 340 were injured. The trial of the suspects was scheduled to start in October this year, but discussions over the glass boxes constructed for the defendants caused the trial to be postponed. Jury selection for the trial starts on 30 November; the entire procedure is expected to last nine months. Ten accused will appear before the assize court for their role. Around a thousand people have registered as civil parties, including victims, victims' associations and relatives of the deceased. More than 300 people have registered as aggrieved parties.

(KOR)

 

Evacuated passengers leaving a damaged Brussels Airport after two explosions in the airport departure hall on 22 March 2016 © BELGA PHOTO DIRK WAEM

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