Nation

Belgium arrests 5, including man connected to Brussels and Paris attacks

BRUSSELS — Belgian authorities arrested five men suspected of links to last month’s bombings in Brussels on Friday, including the last remaining identified fugitive in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.

After weeks of speculation about a mysterious ‘‘man in the hat’’ who escaped the Brussels attacks while three suicide bombers blew themselves up, authorities were checking whether that man was indeed Mohamed Abrini, the last identified suspect at large from the Paris attacks until Friday.

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Abrini is now suspected of playing a role in the two biggest attacks carried out by the Islamic State in Europe over the past year, killing a total of 162 people — 130 in Paris and 32 in Brussels. French authorities had renewed their call to arrest an armed and dangerous Abrini within hours of the March 22 Brussels attacks.

‘‘We are investigating if Abrini can be positively identified as the third person present during the attacks in Brussels National Airport (Zaventem), the so called man in the hat,’’ said prosecutor Eric Van der Sypt.

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The man literally walked away from the airport attack, where two suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing 16. Authorities also detained four other men on Friday, including a man, Osama K., suspected of having contact with the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the Brussels subway, killing another 16.

Osama K. was also filmed by security cameras in the City 2 shopping mall when the bags were bought that were used by the suicide bombers who attacked Brussels Airport the same morning.

Belgian prosecutors said Abrini’s fingerprints and DNA were not only in a Renault Clio used in the Nov. 13 attacks that killed 130 in Paris, but also in an apartment in the Schaerbeek area of Brussels used by the Brussels bombers.

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Friday’s detentions and the fact that they caught Abrini alive constituted a rare moment of light for the Belgian authorities after they were hounded for the past two weeks, accused of several blunders in their handling of the attacks.

Prime Minister Charles Michel had to refuse the offers of resignation of both the interior and justice ministers before Friday’s detentions provided a breakthrough in the investigation.

In a strange twist, French lawmakers investigating the Paris attacks went earlier in the day to Molenbeek, the home neighborhood of many of the Islamic State extremists involved in what one analyst described as a terrorist ‘‘supercell.’’

Friday was three weeks to the day that authorities also arrested in another Brussels neighborhood Salah Abdeslam, also a key suspect in the Paris attacks who had been on the run for four months.

Abdeslam is awaiting extradition to France while Belgian investigators look into his links to other suspects involved in the Brussels attacks.

On Thursday, Belgian investigators still seemed to be at a loss when they issued a call for help from the public with more pictures and videos of the ‘‘man in the hat.’’

The suspect was seen wheeling bombs into the airport with two others before leaving the building ahead of the explosions. He was then traced back by CCTV into the center of town.

Brussels remains under the second-highest terror alert — meaning an attack is considered likely.

Abrini’s precise role in the Paris attacks has never been clear, as is his full link to the Brussels attacks. Abrini is a 31-year-old Belgian-Moroccan, known as a petty criminal before he was believed to have traveled early last summer to Syria where his younger brother died in 2014 in the Islamic State group’s notorious francophone brigade.

He had not resurfaced since the emergence of surveillance video placing him in the convoy with the attackers headed to Paris. He had ties to Abdelhamid Abbaoud, the ringleader of the Paris attacks who died in a police standoff on Nov. 18, and is a childhood friend of brothers Salah and Brahim Abdeslam.

He went multiple times to Birmingham, England, last year, meeting with several men suspected of terrorist activity, a European security official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

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