April 09, 2016 - 1:00 PM
BRUSSELS - After nearly three weeks of frantic searching, Belgian authorities announced Saturday they had finally arrested and identified the elusive "man in the hat" spotted alongside two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at Brussels Airport on March 22.
In a terse evening statement, Belgium's Federal Prosecution Office said recently detained Mohamed Abrini — the last identified suspect at large from the Nov. 13 Paris attacks — had confessed to being the vest- and hat-wearing man whose video image had been widely circulated by authorities.
"After being confronted with the results of the different expert examinations, he confessed his presence at the crime scene," the statement said.
The revelation that a Paris suspect escorted two of the Brussels bombers to their deaths at the city's airport is among the strongest signs yet that the attackers who struck both cities — killing a total of 162 people — were intimately linked.
Abrini was one of four suspects charged Saturday with "participating in terrorist acts" linked to the deadly Brussels suicide bombings that killed 32 people and wounded 270 others at the airport and at the city's Maelbeek subway station.
The prosecutors' office said Abrini threw away his vest in a garbage bin and sold his hat after the bombings. He had been arrested Friday in a Brussels police raid.
Prosecutors did not respond to calls. A legal representative for Abrini could not be immediately located for comment Saturday night.
Abrini, a 31-year-old Belgian-Moroccan petty criminal, has been coming into as one of several links between the squads that brought mayhem to two European capitals four months apart.
Surveillance footage placed Abrini in the convoy with the attackers headed to Paris ahead of the Nov. 13 attacks there that left 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. He was a childhood friend of brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam, both suspects in the Paris attacks and he had ties to Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the attackers' ringleader. His fingerprints and DNA were not only in a Renault Clio used in the Paris attacks but also in an apartment in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels used by the bombers who blew themselves up in the city.
Abrini was also believed to have travelled to Syria, where his younger brother died in 2014 in the Islamic State's Francophone brigade.
One European security official has told The Associated Press he made multiple trips to Birmingham, England, last year, meeting with several men suspected of terrorist activity. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to provide details on the investigation.
Abrini and three others — identified as Osama Krayem, Herve B. M. and Bilal E. M., — were all charged Saturday with participating in "terrorist murders" and the "activities of a terrorist group" in relation to the attacks, prosecutors said in an earlier statement. Two other suspects arrested in the last couple of days were released "after a thorough interrogation," it said.
The developments follow days of arrests and raids in the Belgian capital and could give investigators new insights into the Islamic State group cell believed to have carried out both the attacks in Brussels and the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.
Osama Krayem, identified by prosecutors only as Osama K., is known to have left the Swedish city of Malmo to fight in Syria. The prosecutor's office accuses him of being the second person at the attack on the Brussels subway station and of being at a shopping mall where the luggage used in the airport bombings was purchased.
Krayem had earlier been identified posting photos from Syria on social media, according to Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College.
"He also tried to recruit people in Malmo," Ranstorp told The Associated Press.
Swedish officials had no immediate comment on Krayem.
The prosecutors" statement described Herve B. M. as a Rwandan citizen arrested at the same time as Krayem who is accused of offering assistance to both Abrini and Krayem.
The attacks in France and Belgium were the two biggest carried out by IS in Europe over the past year. The arrests may help investigators unravel the links between the attacks and IS, the radical Muslim group that controls territory in both Iraq and Syria.
The detentions were a rare success for Belgian authorities, who have been pilloried for mishandling leads in the bombings investigation. But despite multiple arrests, Brussels remains under the second-highest terror alert, meaning an attack is still considered likely.
"There are perhaps other cells that are still active on our territory," Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told RTL television on Saturday.
Satter reported from Paris. Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark and Geert Vanden Wijngaert in Brussels contributed to this report.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016