Belgian minister defends country's image after terrorist attacks

Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens on Monday rejected international media criticism of his country's response to terrorist threats, just over a month after suicide bombing attacks killed more than 30 people in Brussels.

On March 22, three attackers detonated explosives at the Brussels international airport and the Maelbeek underground station, close to the headquarters of the European Union's main institutions.

In the days and weeks following the attacks, international media focused on Belgium's highly fragmented state apparatus, divided by language and region, arguing that communication failures and other lapses may have hampered a crackdown on terrorist activities.

"Few countries have been attacked so violently by the international press," Geens told EU lawmakers, referring to media descriptions of a "totally inadequate and weak reaction of Belgium to the growing threat."

"That picture has not only damaged the country, it is also an insult to the work of many people at all levels," he added.

Geens said that Belgium had adopted a series of counter-terrorist measures and had been among the first to warn about foreign fighters - Europeans who fight alongside extremist groups in Iraq or Syria and could return home radicalized and ready to strike.

When a French Islamist, Mehdi Nemmouche, shot dead four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014, Belgium "did not try to blame anyone," Geens said, hinting that other countries could have done more to prevent the attack.

Both Geens and Interior Minister Jan Jambon recognized that mistakes had been made. The Belgian parliament has set up a commission to investigate the Brussels attacks.

"We are going to look very hard at our own performances to strengthen our weak points," Jambon told the EU lawmakers.

But they also called on Belgium's partners in the European Union to step up the fight against terrorism, notably by increasing efforts to share information among member states.

Jambon said the threat level remained elevated in Belgium. Strategic areas such as large train stations, airports and nuclear sites were under heavy surveillance, he said, while authorities were monitoring "soft targets" such as cinemas and shopping centres.

On Monday, the Maelbeek underground station reopened for the first time since the attacks, returning public transport in the Belgian capital to normal after weeks of limited service. Police and military personnel were due to provide additional security.

A commemorative board has been erected in the Maelbeek station for people to leave messages. On Saturday, the site was opened for visits by victims and those who lost family or loved ones, the Belga news agency reported.

Last update: Mon, 25/04/2016 - 18:35
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