Brussels (AFP) – Brussels Airport said it will partially reopen on Sunday, 12 days after it was hit by Islamic State suicide blasts, as Belgian prosecutors charged a third suspect with terrorism over a foiled plot to attack France.
The first three “symbolic flights” will begin departing from Sunday afternoon, Brussels Airport chief executive Arnaud Feist told reporters, adding that travellers will be subject to additional security checks as police had demanded.
“These flights are the first hopeful sign from an airport that is standing up straight after a cowardly attack,” Feist said.
Passengers will have to make use of a temporary check-in facility as the airport’s departure hall was wrecked in the March 22 blasts that also struck a metro station in Brussels and killed 32 people.
The attacks came just four days after Belgium arrested the prime suspect in last November’s Paris terror assaults and links have emerged between the attackers, exposing a web of cross-border jihadist networks.
European authorities, under pressure to crack down on home-grown extremists, have carried out a number of raids and arrests since then, several of them linked to a foiled plot to attack France.
In the latest development in the case, Belgian prosecutors Saturday charged a third suspect with “participation in the activities of a terrorist group” over the plot.
They man was named only as 35-year-old Y.A., who according to Belgian media was arrested in the centre of Brussels on Friday.
The main plot suspect is Reda Kriket, who was arrested near Paris last week after police found an arsenal of weapons and explosives at his home. Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said an imminent act of “extreme violence” had likely been prevented.
– Passengers only –
Brussels Airport had on Thursday already announced it was “technically ready” to resume partial services after testing the tent-like new departure hall.
But police unions held up the restart, threatening to go on strike unless stricter checks were introduced. A deal with the government was reached late Friday, clearing the way for flights to resume.
One of the biggest changes will be that from now only passengers with tickets and ID documents are allowed into the new departure hall, and their bags will be checked before entering.
Cars headed for the airport will be screened and police will carry out spot checks.
The first scheduled flights on Sunday will fly to Athens, Turin and Faro and will be operated by Brussels Airlines, Feist said.
The number of flights will be increased in coming days, although the airport will be only be able to work at 20 percent capacity using the temporary structures, handling 800 to 1,000 passengers an hour.
Feist has said it could take months to return to normal.
The airport shutdown has wreaked havoc on the travel industry, triggering a drop in tourist arrivals and forcing thousands of passengers to be rerouted to other airports in and around Belgium.
– Protest ban –
In the tense Belgian capital meanwhile, police were out in force Friday, with water cannons on the streets and a helicopter hovering above after local authorities banned an anti-Islam demonstration and any counter-protests.
Arrests were made in the city centre and in the troubled area of Molenbeek, home to several of the Paris attackers, according to AFP reporters.
The authorities are eager to prevent a repeat of last weekend, when riot police fired water cannon to disperse far-right football hooligans who disrupted mourners at a shrine for the victims of the Brussels attacks.
Belgium has been on edge since it emerged that several of the attackers in the November 13 gun and suicide bombings in Paris came from Brussels.
The sole surviving Paris suspect, Salah Abdeslam, was arrested on March 18, just metres from his family home in Molenbeek.
His brother Mohamed visited him in prison in northern Belgium on Friday. He told France’s BFMTV that Abdeslam told him he “voluntarily chose not to blow himself up” with the other IS bombers in the attacks that killed 130 people.
He has denied having prior knowledge about the Brussels attacks, even though he has links to two of the bombers.
Belgium is still desperately searching for a mystery third man, known as “the man in the hat”, who was seen on CCTV footage next to the two airport bombers.