The capture of a top fugitive in Brussels and a suicide bomb in Istanbul created a sinister background to the EU-Turkey summit on migration.
Belgian authorities on Saturday (19 March) said that Salah Abdeslam, a suspected participant of last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, had been discharged from hospital and is to face interrogation by security services prior to launching his extradition procedure to France.
“If he starts talking then I presume it will mean he stays longer in Belgium,” Belgian federal prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt told press. He added that Abdeslam will be handed over to France “sooner or later.”
Belgium and France the same day convened meetings of their national security councils.
Belgian prime minister Charles Michel said he would maintain a level three terrorist alert in the country, the second highest, despite Abdeslam’s capture.
“We won a battle yesterday, but we haven’t won the war [against terrorism],” he said.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Abdeslam’s capture was “an important blow against the Daesh terrorist organisation in Europe,” using the Arabic word for Islamic State [IS], a jihadist group based in Syria and Iraq.
In dramatic events on Friday evening Belgian police confronted Abdeslam and two of his associates in the Molenbeek district of the Belgian and EU capital.
As EU leaders and Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu held talks on refugees in the EU Council building across town, police exchanged gunfire with Europe’s most wanted man. Abdeslam was shot in the leg. One of his companions was also injured. The other one was shot dead.
Michel left the summit to coordinate operations. He was later joined later by French president Francois Hollande for a special press briefing.
“There will be further arrests. We know the network is extensive in Belgium, France and other countries … without going into details, they are far more numerous than we thought,” Hollande said.
Abdeslam, a 26-year old French national who grew up in Belgium, is wanted on allegations that he rented cars and booked hotel rooms for suicide bombers who took part in the Paris events.
He is also suspected of being a would-be suicide bomber, but of having failed to detonate an explosive belt that was found after the attacks.
His capture dominated world headlines on Friday and Saturday. The US leader, Barack Obama, congratulated Belgian leader Michel on social media.
IS has claimed responsibility for the Pris attacks that killed 130 people.
The Abdeslam arrest comes amid concern that jihadist and other radicals are using the Turkey-Greece migratory route to infiltrate Europe.
On Saturday a suicide bomber in Istanbul killed at least four people and injured 30 others, the BBC reported
It was the fifth in a series of attacks in Turkey since last July most of which have been claimed by or attributed to Kurdish separatist groups the PKK, YPD, and TAK.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said the attacks “increase[d] our determination to fight terrorism.”
Earlier on Friday in a speech in Canakkale, in western Turkey, he complained that Belgium had allowed PKK sympathisers to hold a small rally outside the EU summit venue.
He said Europe’s appeasement of Kurdish groups amounts to “feeding a snake in its bosom” and could embolden them to launch attacks in the EU.
At a press conference after the summit in Brussels, Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu voiced the same grievance, creating a minor incident with top EU officials Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker who defended Belgium.
The EU already lists the PKK as a terrorist entity.
Turkey has called on it to also designate the YPD. But a senior Turkish official told EUobserver that counter-terrorist cooperation isn’t part of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees.
Some EU politicians are wary of associating terrorism with the migration crisis for fear of feeding right-wing populism.
But the Turkish official said that security services, last month, detected nine would-be suicide bombers when they screened a group of 7,000 asylum seekers who crossed the border from Syria.
He said that if the EU and Turkey failed to gain control over irregular migration it would pose a “security nightmare” for them both.