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Belgium Terror Alert Raised After Explosions At Brussels Airport, Subway


Drama is taking place in the city of Brussels, which appears to be under attack this morning. A series of explosions has rocked that city. One at the airport is confirmed as a suicide bombing that has left people dead. The metro in Brussels also appears to be targeted. Let's turn now to Suzanne Lynch. She's the European correspondent with The Irish Times. She's in Brussels. And Suzanne, give us the latest. What is - what is happening in the city right now?

SUZANNE LYNCH: Good morning. Well, as you have confirmed there - and there has been two separate incidents this morning in Brussels. It's just gone 11 a.m. here in Brussels. And three hours ago, at just before 8 a.m., two explosions went off in the departure lounge of Brussels international airport. That's about nine miles east of the center of the city. And then about an hour later, at 9:11 a.m. precisely, an explosion went off in a metro train, at a station which is about four or 500 meters away from the headquarters of the European Union. So these parallel incidents have occurred. At the moment, the death toll has been confirmed at 13 at the airport. And we're looking at around 10 people dead, are the latest reports, from the metro incident and many, many injured. But the security operation and this whole story is very much a developing story. And operations continue to be underway.


Because you say that Suzanne, I want to clarify one thing. Earlier, we heard of reports of something happening at three different metro stations in Brussels. You have alluded there to one. Is there any clarity as to how many stations have been struck if, in fact, this is a strike?

LYNCH: Yeah, there is confused messages about this. And all we can confirm at this stage is that one metro station has been targeted. And an incident that has left 10 people dead has happened there. But what may have happened is that the Molenbeek metro station where this incident happened is located quite close to Schuman. That's the main EU stop for the metro. And what may have happened is that people may have - and essentially walked along the tunnel underneath the ground and (unintelligible) at Schuman. These stations are located very close together. I mean, there is a metro system here in Brussels, but it's not huge. It's not up to anything like the scale of the New York Subway or the London Underground. It's not too far down underground. So it may well be that a passenger - because we have got footage of people walking through the tunnels and that they then exited at different points around the city.

GREENE: Suzanne, the name of that metro stop you mentioned - it sounds very similar to a neighborhood that we have reported on quite a bit in Brussels, where the authorities have targeted suspected terrorists potentially involved in the attacks in Paris. Can you explain to us and give us the - how is it all connected?

LYNCH: Yes, sorry that may have been my mispronunciation. Maelbeek is the name of the metro station. But you are absolutely right. Molenbeek is the name of the area at - where a lot of the suspects for the Paris attacks have been living. They are not very close together particularly. They might be five metro stops. Molenbeek, the area where a lot of these assassins have been living, is west of the city. Maelbeek, the name of this metro station, is slightly to the east, quite near the EU institution. So they are different areas of the city. But I think what's significant is that the attacks in the metro took place near to the EU headquarters. Huge numbers - hundreds - thousands, tens of thousands of people work in these EU institutions - the European Commission, the European Council. And it's very significant that the metro station was right beside there.

GREENE: Suzanne, stay on the line with us if you can. Let's bring in NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston. And Dina, we're talking about Molenbeek there, which is a neighborhood, not to be confused with the metro station. But that neighborhood really has been - I mean, scrutinized by the authorities since the Paris attacks. How might all of this be connected? I know there was an arrest in Brussels last week.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, the arrest in Brussels actually took place in Molenbeek. They arrested Salah Abdeslam, who's the only, as far as they know, living attacker from the Paris attacks in November 13. Most of the people who did launch that attack in Paris had some connection to this immigrant neighborhood called Molenbeek. It's actually, you know, just two metro stops away from Grand Place, the center of Brussels. So this is hardly sort of a suburb or a isolated area. It's right there, right next to the center of Brussels.

INSKEEP: Dina, we should stress, at this point I suppose, we don't know exactly what has happened. We don't know exactly who did it. But there is a fact that you have alluded to in your reporting that might be worth bringing up here. You have said that authorities believed there might be dozens of other people out there connected in some way with the Paris attacks that might still be on the loose. What caused them to suspect that even before the explosions today?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there's a rule of thumb that counterterrorism officials use that is basically for every front-line terrorist you have, that person would need between three and five people to help with logistics support. In addition to that, yesterday Belgian officials announced that they were looking for a man named Najim Laachraoui, who is a Belgian citizen who went to Syria in 2013, who had been picked up by Salah Abdeslam in Budapest in September before the attacks. And there was some question as to whether or not he played a key role in the Paris attacks. And his picture was widely distributed yesterday. And they said they were hunting for him.

INSKEEP: Suzanne Lynch, what did it feel like to be in the middle of that manhunt, to be living in Brussels?

LYNCH: I mean, the security level here has been very, very high for the last few months. But I think people were surprised last week at these arrests. There had been a sense that things had calmed down here, that maybe the main suspect, Salah Abdeslam, wasn't - had in fact, been in Syria. So people were extremely shocked, including myself last week, when I heard this news that there was a raid underway caught people off guard. I mean, living here in Brussels for the last few months, there's been a really heightened sense of security. But in way, it's become normalized. So on my walk to work to the European Commission, every day I pass heavily armed soldiers outside a Jewish radio station that's there with a huge army truck outside. And this has become a part of my daily life. And people are getting quite used to security. What's worrying now is that these attacks took place, like all terrorist attacks, shocking for people that despite all this security, these still took place. Obviously, it seems to have happened in the airport before the security section, if you like. And essentially, even though there are armed soldiers walking around Brussels Airport departure lounge, you can still walk in there. You're not searched before you walk in that building, similarly with the metro stations. So that's the real worry now about what's happened here. People never expect this kind of coordinated attack. And I think, you know, at the time it happened, rush hour and 8 a.m. at the airport, 9 a.m. at the metro station right beside the EU institutions, that would have been exactly the time when people were going to work at the EU headquarters. So there's really a sense of shock. People have been told by the prime minister now to stay where they are. All public transport has been shut down across the city. And a lot of the tunnels and roads across the city also.

GREENE: OK, we'll be following this story all morning in a city that sounds like it hasn't really recovered from - after the Paris attacks and bracing for something else to happen. Suzanne Lynch is the European correspondent with The Irish Times. Thanks very much. And we also heard from Dina Temple-Raston who's NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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