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Brussels metro bomb suspect ‘talking to police’

Belgian police officer secures the zone outside a courthouse while Brussels attacks suspects Mohamed Abrini and Osama Krayem appear before a judge, in Brussels

By Alastair Macdonald

A Swedish man held in Belgium on suspicion of taking part in last month’s Islamic State attacks on Brussels is talking to investigators, his lawyer said on Thursday, after Osama Krayem’s detention was extended by a month.

Krayem, who was charged with terrorist murder after his arrest in Brussels last Friday, is accused of being the man seen with suicide bomber Khalid El Bakraoui minutes before he blew himself up on a metro train. Police are still searching for a rucksack Krayem was carrying that may have contained a bomb.

“He walked away. He turned back,” defence counsel Vincent Lurquin told reporters. “We must ask ourselves why?”

“He’s talking. That means the investigation is progressing,” Lurquin added, saying his client’s cooperation could help understand what motivated the attackers and who gave the orders.

Among five other suspects whose detention was extended by a month was Mohamed Abrini. He is accused of having accompanied two suicide bombers to Brussels Airport before leaving behind a bomb in a bag and walking back into the city.

Belgian media group Sudpresse quoted an unidentified source as saying Abrini had told a magistrate he had been forced to go to the airport but had not detonated his device: “I was never in Syria. I wouldn’t hurt a fly,” it quoted Abrini, 31, as saying.

On the run since November’s Paris attacks, Abrini was dubbed the ‘man in the hat’ after he was seen on CCTV on March 22 with airport bombers Najim Laachraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui, elder brother of the metro bomber El Bakraoui. Sudpresse said Abrini blamed the Bakraouis for forcing him. Their plan, he said, was to hit three check-in lines – for flights to the United States, Russia and Israel.

On Wednesday, Islamic State hailed the Bakraouis for a role in preparing attacks in both Paris and Brussels.

Abrini is accused of helping organise the Nov 13 attacks that killed 130 in Paris with Salah Abdeslam, another Brussels man. According to an earlier statement by Abrini, Abdeslam’s arrest on March 18 prompted the conspirators to push forward plans for a follow-up attack in Brussels and to carry it out four days later.

Krayem, using a fake Syrian passport, was registered by German police in a car rented by Abdeslam the month before the Paris attacks. Investigators believe he returned to Europe from Islamic State’s Syrian base among refugees reaching Greece.

Separately on Thursday, a Brussels appeal court increased to 15 years from 12 the sentence handed down last July to Khalid Zerkani for recruiting young Belgians to fight in Syria.

Dubbed the “Santa Claus” of jihad by Arab youths in the Brussels borough of Molenbeek, Zerkani was accused of recruiting among others Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to have been a key local organiser of the Paris attacks. Abaaoud died in a gun battle with French police five days after the bloodshed.

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