Belgian security forces have identified the man who set off an explosion at one of Brussels’ busiest train stations before he was shot and killed, in the latest attack to hit Europe, authorities said Wednesday.
Interior Minister Jan Jambon said the attack Tuesday evening could have been much worse because the “big explosion did not happen,” adding more details about the device would be released shortly.
Witnesses said the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest) before setting off the blast, which triggered a small but intense fireball in the station’s underground hall. “The terrorist’s identity is known. We have been able to identify him,” Jambon told RTBF radio and television without giving further details.
Jambon indicated that police had carried out searches once the attacker’s identity was known.
There were no other casualties apart from the suspect, who was confirmed dead by prosecutors hours after the attack.
Prime Minister Charles Michel is to hold a meeting with his top security advisers shortly, with a press conference expected afterwards.
– Panicked passengers –
Crying rail passengers fled the station after the explosion, with memories still fresh of last year’s metro and airport suicide attacks in the city which hosts the EU and NATO headquarters.
The busy Central Station in the heart of Brussels, which sits just beside the Grand Place, one of the city’s main tourist attractions, reopened around 8:00 am (0600 GMT) Wednesday, railway authorities said.
“This is considered as a terrorist attack,” federal prosecutor’s office spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt said at a news conference outside the station late Tuesday.
The blast came a day after a man mowed down Muslims near a mosque in London, and a suspected Islamist on a terror watchlist rammed a car laden with weapons into a police vehicle in Paris.
Brussels has been on high alert since suicide bombers struck Zavantem Airport and the Maalbeek metro station near the EU quarter in March 2016, killing 32 people and injuring hundreds more.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were carried out by the same Brussels-based cell behind the November 2015 suicide bombings and shootings in Paris which left 130 dead.
Initial reports said the blast at Central Station could have come from an explosive belt but subsequent accounts suggested it may have been a suitcase on a trolley.
Van Der Sypt said that at about 1830 GMT there was a “small explosion”.
“The suspect has been neutralised by the military that were present at the scene immediately after the explosion,” he said.
The incident happened well after rush hour, but hundreds of passengers were still evacuated from one of Belgium’s busiest stations.
The nearby Grand Place was also cleared.
“There were people crying, there were people shouting,” said Elisa Roux, a spokeswoman for the Belgian rail company SNCB. “There was a movement of panic.”
– Ball of fire –
Hours after the incident the suspect’s body remained at the scene as bomb squads searched the area. An AFP journalist reported that a controlled explosion was heard several hours after the attack.
Social media images showed a fireball in a nearly empty underground hall.
“I went down to the mezzanine level, someone was shouting. Then he yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’, and he blew up a wheeled suitcase,” Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a railway employee, told reporters.
“I was behind a wall when it exploded. I went down and alerted my colleagues to evacuate everyone. He (the suspect) was still around but after that we didn’t see him.”
“It wasn’t exactly a big explosion but the impact was pretty big. People were running away.”
He described the suspect as well built and tanned with short hair, wearing a white shirt and jeans.
“I saw that he had something on him because I could see wires emerging, so it may have been a suicide vest,” Van Herrewegen said.
The federal crisis centre said the situation was “under control” about an hour after the explosion but kept the country’s terror alert at level 3, the second highest.
Michel, the prime minister, hailed the “courage” of security forces.
Soldiers have been deployed at railway stations and landmark buildings since the Paris terror attacks, when a link to Brussels was first established.
The country’s law enforcement agencies and intelligence services came under intense scrutiny amid claims that a series of leads were missed after the Paris attacks that could have led to the Brussels bombers.