Officials scramble after Brussels blasts

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Officials at Norway’s foreign ministry were scrambling Tuesday morning to track its delegations and Norwegian citizens in Brussels, following explosions at both the Belgian capital’s international airport and a metro station downtown. Like so many other countries, Norway has a large presence at all times in what’s also viewed as the capital of Europe.

The first explosions occurred around 8am during the morning commuter rush at the check-in area of Brussels main airport, Zaventem. Witnesses also reported shots being fired in what was quickly being characterized as an attack and not caused by any accident. It came just days after the chief suspect behind the terrorist bombing in Paris last year was arrested in Brussels.

Dead and injured
Information remain sketchy by mid-morning, but local media were reporting “several” people killed and at least 25 injured. Damage was described as heavy at the check-in terminal for American Airlines and other carriers, while the situation at the airport itself was described by one Norwegian travel passing through as “chaotic.”

Johan Tandberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he was changing planes at the airport’s Terminal B when the blasts went off, rattling the building and prompting people to start running and yelling “bomb! bomb!” Tandberg said passengers were first ordered to evacuate but then received a second contradictory message telling them to remain in both terminals A and B.

That initially meant that several thousand passengers who already had checked in were basically stranded inside the terminal along with airline personnel. All gates were closed, he said, and all incoming flights redirected to other European airports. An evacuation was later reported to be underway.

Check-in areas open and unsecured
The area hardest hit, apparently by what Belgian radio reported was at least one suicide bomber, was the check-in area serving among other carriers American Airlines. Like at most airports around the world, the check-in areas are located before security control, and open to the public. News bureaus reported that people inside the area started running outdoors to escape what were widely believed to be terrorists.

Not long after the airport blasts, another explosion went off at the Maelbeek metro station in downtown Brussels, almost adjacent to a Norwegian-owned Thon Hotel and close to offices of the European Union. More blasts were reported at other metro stations, resulting in both casualties and injuries. Belgian authorities shut down the entire metro system along with train lines as they raised the terror threat to its highest possible level.

Ministry and embassy in crisis mode
Officials at Norway’s foreign ministry in Oslo and at the Norwegian Embassy in Brussels were scrambling to follow events as they unfolded and chart the whereabouts of Norewegian officials working in Brussels and others needing any assistance, especially at the airport. Reports shortly after 10am placed the death toll at around 10 with around 30 people injured, but those numbers could rise.

In addition to permanent staff at the embassy and at Norway’s delegation to the EU, Norwegian officials are constantly traveling in and out of Brussels of business. Because of the Easter holidays this week, official meetinges were lighter than normal but Prime Minister Erna Solberg was just in the city and Norway also has a large staff at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is Norwegian but his whereabouts weren’t immediately clear. Stoltenberg’s wife, diplomat Ingrid Schulerud, currently serves as Norway’s ambassador to Belgium and the couple lives in Brussels.

Norway’s own police intelligence unit and security service PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) reported via social media that it was also following the situation in Brussels closely and evaluating how it would affect the terror threat level in Norway. The Easter holiday week is a busy travel time in Norway, and the security situation at Norwegian airports was also under evaluation. “We, along with everyone else, are following what’s happening (in Brussels),” Tor Iversen, spokesman for Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen, told NRK. Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) cancelled all flights to Brussels on Tuesday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund