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Brussels terrorist cell aimed ‘to strike France again’

Photos of Paris and Brussels attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini released by Belgium Federal Police

Key Paris attacks suspect Mohamed Abrini and his accomplices were seeking to launch new attacks in France but instead targeted Brussels as the authorities closed in, the Belgian prosecutor’s office revealed Sunday.

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“[The] terrorist group initially had the intention to strike in France again,” the prosecutor said in a statement. “Eventually, surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation, they urgently took the decision to strike in Brussels.”

Abrini was charged on Sunday with “terrorist murders” and related crimes in connection to the March 22 suicide attacks in Brussels, a day after the Belgian prosecutor charged him with the same crimes in relation to the November 13 Paris attacks.

The new charges come just hours after Abrini admitted to being "the man in the hat" captured on CCTV footage at Brussels airport shortly before the blasts that killed 17 people, including the two attackers, and wounded around 80 others.

Belgian authorities had been frantically seeking the third suspect caught on CCTV footage alongside Ibrahim el-Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui, the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the Brussels airport departures lounge.

Belgian authorities earlier this week released new footage showing the suspect, dressed in a light jacket and a beach hat, leaving Brussels airport after the attacks and walking through downtown Brussels before disappearing.

Abrini confessed to his presence at the crime scene and explained to investigators that he had “thrown away his vest (jacket) in a garbage bin” and had “sold his hat afterwards".

Links to Paris

Abrini’s admission underscored the links between the November 13 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people, and the March 22 Brussels attacks.

A 31-year-old Belgian national of Moroccan descent, Abrini was the last Paris attacks suspect still on the run before his arrest.

He was detained in Brussels on Friday along with five other suspects, two of whom were released after being questioned, Belgian authorities said Saturday.

Another suspect, identified only as Osama K., was also charged Saturday with participation in the activities of a terrorist group and terrorist murders.

Abrini was known as a petty criminal before his suspected travel last summer to Syria, where his younger brother died in 2014 as part of the Islamic State (IS) group's notorious francophone brigade.

Who is Mohamed Abrini?

Belgian prosecutors said Abrini's fingerprints and DNA were not only found in a Renault Clio used in the November 13 attacks in Paris but also in an apartment in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels used by the Brussels bombers.

He also had ties to Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks, who died in a police raid in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis on November 18.

Abaaoud had been a childhood friend of Brahim Abdeslam – who blew himself up during the Paris attacks – and his brother Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested in Brussels on March 18 after four months on the run following the carnage in the French capital.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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