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Man in Hat in Brussels Airport Attack Is in Custody, Belgium Says

The "man in the hat" who accompanied the two suicide bombers who detonated their explosives at Brussels Airport on March 22, and who was seen in a surveillance video walking away from the airport, has been identified as Mohamed Abrini, the Belgian prosecutor's office said in a statement on Saturday.

Mr. Abrini is also suspected of providing logistical help for the men who carried out the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. He was detained on Friday in Brussels after a nearly five-month manhunt and was charged on Saturday with participation in the activities of a terrorist group and terrorist murder.

But on Saturday evening, the Belgian authorities announced a major breakthrough: Mr. Abrini confessed that he was the man in the hat and thus had also been directly involved in the attacks at Brussels Airport, which killed 15 people and the two bombers.

"After being confronted with the results of the different expert examinations, he confessed his presence at the crime scene," the prosecutor's office said in its statement. "He explained having thrown away his vest in a garbage bin and having sold his hat afterwards."

If followed by further information, the new developments could help investigators identify any remaining members of the Islamic State's network in Belgium and France.

"It's one of the most significant advances in the case," said Claude Moniquet, a French former intelligence officer who works in Brussels. "Today we can say that all the important members of the Paris cell and Brussels cell are dead or in jail. Potentially it's the end of this part of the story."

But he cautioned that there still could be a few "minor figures" who had not yet been found.

The Belgian prosecutor's office said three men in addition to Mr. Abrini had been detained and charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist network and terrorist murder.

The prosecutor identified Osama K., who has also used the alias Naim al-Ahmed. He has been identified by Swedish terrorism experts and media outlets as Osama Krayem, and he lived in Sweden.

Osama K. was the second person involved in the attack on the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels on March 22, the prosecutor's office said. Video footage at the station captured images of a man who accompanied Khalid el-Bakraoui, who detonated the bomb, killing himself and 17 others. Until Saturday, the second man had not been identified.

Video cameras at a Brussels mall also captured footage of the same man buying the bags used to hold the explosives.

The third man charged is Hervé B. M., 25, a Rwandan citizen who was arrested with Osama K. and who is believed to have helped Mr. Abrini and Osama K.

A fourth man who was arrested Friday, Bilal E. M., 27, was also charged with terrorist murder and participation in the activities of a terrorist group. Officials say he is suspected of aiding Mr. Abrini and Osama K.

Two other men who were detained with Mr. Abrini on Friday were released.

Mr. Abrini's capture is almost as important as that of Salah Abdeslam, the 10th man directly involved in the November Paris attacks and the only one who survived. Mr. Abdeslam was captured on March 18 in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, just a 10-minute walk from his mother's house.

Mr. Abdeslam and Mr. Abrini — friends who grew up together in Molenbeek — are both believed to have provided logistical support for the attacks in and around Paris, which killed 130 people.

Mr. Abdeslam had been expected to take a direct role in the Paris attacks and had been equipped with a suicide vest that he decided not to detonate, he told investigators after his capture.

Mr. Abrini's story and the full scope of his role are not yet clear, but he appears to be one of the links between the Paris and Brussels attacks. He was seen in surveillance footage with some of the Paris attackers in November as they traveled from the Brussels area to Paris to organize logistics for the attacks and also on the trip transporting some of the attackers to Paris.

In addition, his DNA and fingerprints were found in a house in the Schaerbeek section of Brussels that was used to prepare at least some of the suicide vests for the Paris attacks.

He was in the apartment on Rue Max Roos in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels where the explosives were made — investigators found his fingerprints and DNA there — and he left for the airport with Najim Laachraoui, who is believed to have been the person who made the explosives, and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui; both of those men were killed when they detonated their explosives at the airport. The three men are seen in airport surveillance video footage pushing their bags on carts through the departures hall.

Mr. Abrini left the airport after dropping off his bag, which the Belgian federal prosecutor has said contained the most explosives, but it failed to explode. Investigators found it and conducted a controlled detonation.

[Source: By Alissa J. Rubin, The New York Times, Paris, 09Apr16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 11Apr16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.