COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – Explosions that tore through the departures area at Brussels’ international airport and a subway station in the heart of the Belgian capital Tuesday one hour apart left 31 people dead and 300 injured. The Belgian Health Ministry said that 150 people were still hospitalized and 61 were in intensive care.
Most of the injured, representing 40 nationalities and including three European Commission staff members, suffered burns that in some cases were accompanied by “injuries like lesions related to a powerful blast,” the ministry said.
Islamic State extremists claimed responsibility for the attacks, which officials believe were carried out by suicide bombers less than a week after the arrest in Brussels of a key suspect in the Paris terrorist attacks.
Prosecutors and media reports named two brothers and a Belgian with links to Paris as the search continued for a fourth attacker.
Ibrahim El Bakraoui, 29, was one of two suicide bombers who died at Brussels Airport. Khalid El Bakraoui, 27, died in the attack at the Maelbeek subway station, where an explosion tore through the second car of a train that was headed away from the neighborhood housing EU institutions.
The third man, reported by state broadcaster RTBF to be Najim Laachraoui, was already sought as a suspected bomb maker in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris.
A fourth suspect is on the run after having dropped off at the airport a bag containing “the most significant” explosive charge that had been prepared for the attacks, Van Leeuw said. But the bomb only went off later, once a bomb squad was on the scene.
Thousands of miles away from Belgium, President Obama ended his historic trip to Cuba with a confident challenge to its communist leaders Tuesday, pressing them to keep pace with the changes he set in motion for a new era in the relationship between the neighboring nations.
Eager to tip the balance toward popular rule on his three-day visit here, Obama urged President Raul Castro to set aside fears and put the future of his country “en las manos del pueblo Cubano” – in the hands of the Cuban people.
Addressing Castro by name and looking briefly into the theater balcony where Castro sat, Obama said he need not fear “the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”
He also said this year’s U.S. presidential race was a symbol of how democracy can transform society.
“You had two Cuban-Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a Black man who is president, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee, who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist,” he said to laughter from the audience. “Who would have believed that back in 1959?”
Castro sat through most of the speech stone-faced, listening to it through a translator. But he broke into applause when Obama mentioned ending the half-century economic embargo.
During his speech, the president pledged support to Belgium.
“This is yet another reminder that the world must unite,” he said. “We must be together, regardless of nationality or race or faith in fighting against the scourge of terrorism.”
The president conferred privately with his national security staff and other world leaders about the international response, but marched on with his day of public diplomacy.
The U.S. responded to the blasts in Brussels by raising its terror alert and deploying additional U.S. state and regional security at airports and rail and transit stations across the country.
The Department of Homeland Security announced heightened security after the Brussels attacks even as it said there was no credible intelligence suggesting similar attacks were planned against the U.S.
Kept his schedule
Obama followed his speech by meeting with some of the most well-known members of Cuba’s small, beleaguered dissident community, including several who were arrested just ahead of his arrival in Cuba. He praised their courage, group members said, but also acknowledged that not all favored his policy of detente.
Later, Obama donned khakis and went to a baseball game, then continued his trip to Argentina following the attacks, saying that to cancel his appearances or cut his trip short would represent a concession to terrorists.
Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, slammed Obama for not cutting his trip short after the attack in Brussels, as did Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another GOP presidential hopeful.
“I hope he will say he’s leaving Cuba and heading back to the White House,” Kasich said early Tuesday.
Rep. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, criticized the president for “yucking it up with FARC terrorists at a baseball game yesterday when Europe is under siege by terrorists,” a reference to the presence of Colombian guerrillas who are in Cuba negotiating an end to their 50-year-old conflict with the Colombian government.
Fight over ‘Gitmo’
In a related matter, Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that Tuesday’s deadly terror attacks in Belgium showed the folly of Obama’s bid to shutter the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Pentagon’s point man on the military prison acknowledged at a hearing that in at least one previous instance, freed detainees had killed Americans.
“What I can tell you is unfortunately there have been Americans that have died because of (released) Gitmo detainees,” Paul Lewis, chief envoy on Guantanamo for the Defense Department, said in response to a question from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
An unidentified Obama administration official later told The Associated Press that Lewis was referring to an incident involving an Afghan prisoner who’d been released from the detention center during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Ninety-one prisoners remain at Guantanamo; 532 detainees were transferred to other countries during the Bush administration and 156 by the Obama administration.
Republicans also escalated their criticism of Obama’s strategy to combat the Islamic State terrorist group in the wake of bombings in Brussels.
Obama has in turn bristled at suggestions that his strategy is insufficient, declaring on Wednesday that the militant group’s destruction is his top priority and calling Republican proposals folly, including an earlier suggestion by GOP presidential candidate Cruz that the U.S. carpet-bomb areas held by Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump said this week that he would return to the use of harsh interrogation techniques considered torture by the United Nations, including water boarding; and in an interview with Bloomberg Politics he said he wouldn’t rule out using nuclear weapons against Islamic State.
“When I hear someone say we should carpet-bomb Iraq and Syria, not only is that inhumane, not only is that contrary to our values, but that would likely be an extra mechanism for ISIL to recruit more people willing to die and explode bombs in an airport or a metro station,” Obama said. “That’s not a smart strategy.”
Obama reserved particular derision for Cruz’s proposal on Tuesday that police “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” in the U.S. He said that Muslim communities in the U.S. are not a threat because they are largely integrated into American society.
“They do not feel ghetto-ized, they do not feel isolated. Their children are our children’s friends, going to the same schools. They are our colleagues in our workplaces, they are our men and women in uniform fighting for our freedom,” Obama said.
“Any approach that would single them out and target them for discrimination is not only wrong and un-American, but it would also be counterproductive.”
On to Argentina
On Wednesday, Obama arrived overnight for a two-day visit to Argentina following the election last year of Mauricio Macri as its new president, replacing a succession of Argentine leaders antagonistic toward the U.S.
The two presidents signed several bilateral agreements concerning education, security, technology and initiatives to attract investments to Argentina. They also promised to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking, which is on the increase in Argentina.
Macri, a right-of-center businessman who once headed a popular soccer club, took office in December promising to rejuvenate an economy suffering from high inflation, low growth and declining trade, all inherited from his populist predecessor Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl of dpa; Angela Greiling Keane and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News; Jessica Camille Aguirre, Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, Mimi Whitefield, Lesley Clark and Jim Wyss of the Miami Herald; Christi Parsons, Kate Linthicum and Michael A. Memoli of the Tribune Washington Bureau; Andres D’Alessandro and Chris Kraul of the Los Angeles Times and James Rosen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) all contributed to this report.