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Terrorists 'switched attack to Brussels from France' as police closed in

Belgian soldiers stand outside a closed entrance for the Midi railway station during high level security alert following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium. (Reuters)

Belgian soldiers stand outside a closed entrance for the Midi railway station during high level security alert following the attacks in Brussels, Belgium. (Reuters)

Suicide bombers claimed 32 lives when they blew themselves up at Brussels airport and at a metro station on March 22 but left a trail for police leading directly to the November Paris attacks which killed 130 people.

Brussels: The Brussels-based Islamic State jihadists behind the Paris attacks planned a fresh strike in France but targeted the Belgian capital instead as police closed in, the federal prosecutor said on Sunday.

The prosecutor also announced that the so-called "man in the hat" Mohamed Abrini had been charged with "terrorist murders" over the attacks in Brussels in March.

Suicide bombers claimed 32 lives when they blew themselves up at Brussels airport and at a metro station on March 22 but left a trail for police leading directly to the November Paris attacks which killed 130 people.

"Numerous elements in the investigation have shown that the terrorist group initially had the intention to strike in France again," the Belgian federal prosecutor's office said in a statement. "Surprised by the speed of the progress in the ongoing investigation, they urgently took the decision to strike in Brussels."

The prosecutor gave no further details but the Brussels onslaught followed the March 18 arrest of top Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam after four months on the run.

The prosecutor also gave no details of the planned attack in France but late last month, French police arrested Reda Kriket near Paris, finding weapons and explosives in a flat he had used to suggest he was planning an attack of "extreme violence."

Belgium has arrested two suspects, identified as Abderrahmane A. and Rabah M, in connection with the Kriket case and on Thursday both were remanded in custody, along with three other suspects held in connection with the November Paris attacks.

Shortly after Kriket's arrest, French prosecutor Francois Molins had said that "while no specific target has been identified, nonetheless everything leads us to believe that the discovery of this cache (of weapons) has allowed us to prevent an action of extreme violence by a terrorist network".

In today's statement, the Belgian prosecutor said Abrini, the man seen in CCTV footage with the two suicide bombers at Brussels airport, had been charged with "terrorist murders".

"The investigating judge specialised in terrorism cases has put Mohamed Abrini in detention in connection with the investigation into the Brussels and Zaventem (airport) attacks," the statement said.

"He is charged with participation in the activities of a terrorist group, terrorist murders and attempts to commit terrorist murders."

first published:April 10, 2016, 21:46 IST