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Failed Brussels attack could have caused widespread casualties – authorities

Morroccan national with possible Isis sympathies was shot dead after trying to explode suitcase bomb in Central station.

A man who tried to inflict a mass casualty attack on Brussels’ busy Central station was a Moroccan national with possible Islamic State sympathies from the Molenbeek area of the Belgian capital, prosecutors have said.

Belgium’s security services are frantically seeking to piece together the last movements of the man, who was shot dead by a soldier on Tuesday evening after a suitcase bomb that he had detonated failed to explode properly.

The federal prosecutor’s office said it was clear that the city had been lucky to avoid a large number of fatalities and injuries from the attempted attack, which appears to have been sophisticated and carefully planned.

Authorities identified the man by his initials, OZ, and said he was a 36-year-old Moroccan national from Molenbeek. Local media have named him as Oussama Zariouh.

A search of his home uncovered chemical substances and materials that could be used to make explosives, said prosecutors, who have concluded that he had probably made the bomb there. “There are also indications that the suspect had sympathies for the terrorist organisation Isis,” the prosecutors said.

It emerged on Wednesday that he had been carrying a suitcase containing nails and gas bottles when he targeted a group of about 10 passengers in the departure hall.

The federal prosecutor’s office said he entered the station at 8.39pm, approaching and then backing away from the group. At 8.44pm he returned to the middle of the group, shouting and grabbing his suitcase. There was a partial explosion and the suitcase caught fire, but nobody was hurt.

The man then left the suitcase and pursued a stationmaster down to the platform. The bag exploded again, this time more violently, but the passengers who had been standing nearby had run to a safe distance, and again there were no injuries.

He then ran back up to the concourse, rushing towards a soldier and shouting “God is greatest” in Arabic – where he was then shot several times. He died instantly. He was not carrying any further explosives on his body, contrary to initial reports.

Nicolas Van Herrewegen, a rail worker, told Reuters: “He was talking about the jihadists and all that and then at some point he shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ and blew up the little suitcase he had next to him. People just took off.”

The prosecutor’s office said it believed the man had acted alone on the evening and that it was not yet clear whether he was part of a wider terrorist conspiracy.

Although the bomb failed, its sophistication will set off alarm bells within the Belgian security services in the wake of a series of similar terror attacks in Europe: the bomb used to kill 22 people at Manchester Arena was packed with nails, and suitcase bombs were used in the March 2016 attacks on Brussels airport and Maalbeck metro station.

Tuesday’s attack came just a day after a man was killed when he rammed his car, filled with explosives and weapons, into a police convoy on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

Prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt said many lives had been saved by the technical failure in the device in the suitcase. “It was clear he wanted to cause much more damage than what happened,” Van der Sypt said. “The bag exploded twice, but it could have been a lot worse.”

Hooded police and forensic officers raided the man’s home overnight, where they found bomb-making materials. The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said his country would not bow to the terror threat, which has seen soldiers become a permanent fixture at public spaces in Brussels.

“We will not let ourselves be intimidated,” Michel said after a national security council meeting. “We will go on living our lives as normal. We have avoided an attack that could have been a great deal worse.

“In three years we have been confronted with several attacks or attempts and we say the zero risk does not exist.”

Belgium’s national crisis centre said it was keeping the country’s terror level at three out of four, meaning an attack was likely. It said there was no immediate information to suggest that another attack was imminent “so far”.

Molenbeek, a relatively impoverished borough with a large Moroccan Muslim population, gained notoriety after a terror cell based there mounted suicide attacks on Paris in November 2015, killing 130 people. Associates of the same group attacked Brussels four months later, killing 32 people.

The mayor of Moleenbeck, Françoise Schepmans, told reporters that the man, who was divorced and unemployed, featured in police files in relation to a drugs case last year but that he had not previously been linked to any terrorist activity.

Schepmans said: “The fight against radicalism remains the priority of Molenbeek. He had not shown up on the radar, but the police and the community continue their work. This attack strengthens our determination to fight radicalism and terrorism.”

Central station reopened on Wednesday morning. A mobile police command unit and several officers were still at the station and burn marks were still visible from the explosions.

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