Brussels Update: Toll Of Deadly Attacks Continues To Rise
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The little scenes from Brussels are the ones that make you feel the human cost of this tragedy today. You see an image of an ordinary air terminal with smoke pouring out. A photo shows two women resting on a subway bench and flecked with blood. Two explosions took place at about 8 o'clock local time in the departure area of Brussels main airport. Belgium's prime minister says that one explosion at least was caused by a suicide bomber. There was another explosion inside a metro station. A number of people were killed in both locations. More than two dozen people are said to be dead. Scores are wounded. President Obama addressed these attacks when speaking just a short time ago in Havana, Cuba.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And this is yet another reminder that the world must unite. We must to be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith, in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.
INSKEEP: We have, of course, been listening to voices from Brussels all morning long, including the voice of Gabriele Steinhauser, who is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and was at Zaventem airport this morning.
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GABRIELE STEINHAUSER: People who were there during the explosions said there were scenes of chaos. It took about 10 minutes for security personnel to arrive. There were mothers with children and old people who didn't know what to do. People felt like authorities were badly prepared. They were led right through the place where the explosion happened. People say there was a lot of blood.
INSKEEP: We have also heard today from Financial Times Brussels bureau chief Peter Spiegel.
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PETER SPIEGEL: A friend of mine, senior EU official here who works on the eurozone crisis, was about to walk into the airport for a business trip to Rome where he was going to talk to the Italian government on economic issues, suddenly heard the explosion, thought it was construction. This is a guy who's lived through the worst of the eurozone crisis, usually unflappable. And I spoke with him on the phone and just sort of like a leaf was just incredibly shaken.
INSKEEP: And let's hear one more voice, the voice of Zoya Sheftalovich, who is a reporter with Politico in Europe. Her office is just a few feet from the metro station that was struck, and she was there in the aftermath. She's on the line. Welcome to the program.
ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH: Thank you.
INSKEEP: What did you see?
SHEFTALOVICH: I saw this morning the aftermath of the Maelbeek metro station bombing. I was on my way to work. We had all heard about the Brussels airport bombing attacks. We were all on call. And I knew that it was not a good idea to catch the train. That would have been the train that I would've caught to work. It just did not seem like a good idea to get on the metro system after the attack at Brussels. These sort of attacks happen, as you know, in clusters in Europe at the moment. So I decided to walk. And on my walk through, I got a text message from a colleague saying that there were unconfirmed reports that Maelbeek, a train station that's just a hundred feet or so from our office, had also been bombed. I then ran to the metro station to see if I could confirm what had happened. And as I approached it, I could see that there was smoke coming out of the train station. People were milling around. There was police tape that had been haphazardly erected but only on one side of the street. I crossed over to the other side of the street, and I was right opposite the entrance to the station where people were being carried out and being laid on the floor. They were being covered with white blankets. I don't know if there were any dead among them. I know there were probably a dozen to two dozen injured on the ground. There was blood. People were crying, and generally it was just a scene of chaos.
INSKEEP: Were people being cared for, the wounded being cared for when you arrived?
SHEFTALOVICH: They were, but because of the way - so the position of the metro station, it's on one of Brussels' main streets. It's Rue de la Loi, which is a street that cuts through the European quarter, and it's a one-way street. And there was just absolute traffic gridlocks. The police had not set up any sort of blocking or traffic control at that point. So there were ambulances and police cars and fire trucks that were just stuck in gridlock further up the street and were not able to get to the wounded. There were people who were caring for the wounded, but they were not having access to ambulances at that time. And it didn't seem like emergency services were able to help them to the extent that they needed help.
INSKEEP: I feel like you're telling us something make meaningful here that there have been enough attacks on Europe at this point that you would know when hearing of an attack that you would not want to be in the metro system. I'm not sure that thought would have occurred to me if there was an explosion here in Washington, D.C.
SHEFTALOVICH: This is something - I mean, we've been dealing with the situation in Brussels for the last year really, and particularly since the Paris terror attacks everyone has been on high alert. And it just seemed like common sense that after an attack at the airport the chaos that would ensue as a result of that would probably facilitate further terrorist attacks. And so it just occurred to me that the metro was just a terrible place to be. And certainly there was no way I was going to get on it. In fact, we were - I was texting with colleagues, and I told everyone hey, look guys, don't get on the metro. Several people, unfortunately, had been on the Metro. We had one colleague who was on the train just before this one where the bomb went off. So it is - I mean, it doesn't occur perhaps to everyone, but it's the sort of thing that you start thinking about when you've been living in a very heightened sense of fear over months.
INSKEEP: What have people been saying to one another since these attacks?
SHEFTALOVICH: It's been very surreal. I think particularly in the office, we immediately mobilized and were running around trying to speak with people going to hospitals. When people thought of returning to the office after a few hours out, you know, the shell-shocked look on everyone's faces, everyone just shocked by what they had seen. I certainly - I mean, I've never been that close to a terror attack, thankfully, in my life. I've never seen injured people being carried out of a terror attack, so it was quite shocking. And then sort of reliving it on Twitter, seeing photos of the train carriage that had been blown up - people are just in shock. The - an eerie kind of silence has descended on Brussels now. It was all sirens - you know, just a couple of hours ago, all we could hear was sirens. But now there's very few sirens, very little noise. The street, which is one of the main streets of Brussels, it's right outside of our building, has been shut to traffic. So it's a very strange feeling right now.
INSKEEP: Ms. Sheftalovich, please stay with us for a moment because I want to bring in NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston into this conversation. Dina has come to know Brussels well for many reasons, one of them being that her counterterrorism reporting has taken her there more than once. What do you think about when you think of Brussels, Dina?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, I was actually born in Brussels...
TEMPLE-RASTON: ...And French is my first language, so I know Brussels very well. And I was there when they had the last state of emergency shortly after the Paris attacks, when the metro was shut down and the streets were completely deserted. And there were a number of army and police operations that were down below our hotel. They closed us into our hotel and said there was an operation as they were looking for Salah Abdeslam all the way back in November. So it's eerie when Brussels is empty like I'm sure it is starting to empty out now with the state of emergency.
INSKEEP: And you have been there for work I mention because there have been a number of terror suspects traced to that place, including the suspect arrested in Brussels the other day. What is this city's role - or at least some neighborhoods of this city - their role in wider terror networks?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Belgium has been the center of investigations into some of these terrorist networks because first of all, a huge number of Belgians have gone to Syria, about 200 of them have gone and about they think - authorities - Belgian authorities think about 120 have come back. They have the most travelers to Syria and joiners of ISIS per capita of anywhere in the world. And the Paris attackers all had a connection to an immigrant neighborhood that's just off the city center in Brussels called Molenbeek. And in fact where they arrested this Paris attacker on Friday, Salah Abdeslam, was about 500 feet from where his family home where he grew up in Molenbeek.
INSKEEP: So you've reminded us this is about a week of activity, right? There was a raid one week ago. That led to the arrest on Friday, is that correct?
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's exactly right. There was a raid on a safe house. They thought it was actually empty because no one had paid any bills and the water and the electricity was off. So they went in with just six officers who knocked, and then were shocked to be greeted with a hail of gunfire. Four police officers were actually injured. Two people escaped and one person that they had been looking for for some time, since the Paris attacks, was actually killed in that raid. And he was someone who had indeed been on a list for having returned from Syria.
INSKEEP: And we know that Belgian authorities had been warning of a possible retaliation for that arrest for the last several days. So let me go back to Zoya Sheftalovich on the streets of Brussels. If you can even remember now - it must seem like a long time ago - yesterday must seem like a long time ago. What was it like to go through that period of what turned out to be waiting for - waiting for now?
SHEFTALOVICH: Well, it was a strange feeling of triumph on Friday when Salah Abdeslam was arrested. There was - you know, there were tweets from the Belgian authorities. There had been a feeling in Brussels that the Belgian authorities were under siege from the press reports, from people who were calling them incompetent or inept in the aftermath of the Paris bombing because of course, as you know, many of those bombers were originally from Brussels. So it was a feeling of triumph - you know, we've got him was something that the prime minister tweeted. That seemed to be a little premature, frankly.
SHEFTALOVICH: I mean, obviously, now in hindsight it was premature. But even over the last couple of days, what we've been hearing is that there has been this idea that there could be subsequent attacks as a result of the arrest or...
SHEFTALOVICH: ...In connection to the arrest because people were concerned that - you know, there was a feeling that those who had been preparing attacks would just go forth...
INSKEEP: Got to stop you there.
SHEFTALOVICH: They would have been scared.
INSKEEP: Zoya, thank you very much.
SHEFTALOVICH: It's a pleasure. Thank you.
INSKEEP: Zoya Sheftalovich of Politico in Brussels. We also heard this morning from NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.