Belgium charges Abdeslam accomplice over 2016 bombings

Sofiane Ayari, accomplice of the November 2015 Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam, is escorted by Belgian police officers in a Brussels court on February 8, 2018

A Belgian judge has charged an accomplice of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam with a terror offence linked to the Brussels suicide bombings, prosecutors said Friday. Tunisian Sofiane Ayari is the ninth person to be charged over the March 22, 2016 bombings at Brussels airport and a metro station that killed 32 people and wounded hundreds. Ayari, who along with Abdeslam was jailed in April for opening fire on police in Brussels days before the bombings, was charged late Thursday "with participation in the activities of a terrorist organisation," the federal prosecutor's office said. It said an investigating judge charged Ayari, 24, "in connection with the investigation after the terrorist attacks in Brussels and Zaventem" airport. The Brussels attacks were claimed by the Islamic State group, with whom the Tunisian is believed to have fought in Syria. A Brussels court on April 23 sentenced Ayari and Abdeslam to 20 years in prison for trying to kill police officers during a gunbattle in Brussels that led to their capture. Four police officers were wounded in the March 15 gun fight, four months after the November 2015 Paris attacks, and days before the Brussels bombings. Ayari is being held in a Belgian prison, while Abdeslam, the sole surviving suspect in the Paris attacks, is held in France pending a separate trial over the attacks in the French capital. The Paris gun attacks and suicide bombings were also claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group, in which 130 people died and hundreds wounded. Investigators suspect Ayari took part in a plot to attack Amsterdam-Schipol airport hatched by the same cell believed to have carried out both the Paris and Brussels attacks. Belgian media reported that Ayari's indictment opens the way for a similar one for Abdeslam, a Belgian-born Frenchman, in connection with the Brussels bombings, a case being prepared by investigating judge Berta Bernardo-Mendez. "That appears plausible. It's the judge who will decide," a source close to the case told AFP. Investigators suspect Abdeslam's arrest precipitated the Brussels attacks as members of the cell feared they too would be captured. Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui blew themselves up at the airport, while Ibrahim's brother Khalid El Bakraoui detonated his bomb at Maalbeek metro station. Police say Mohamed Abrini fled the airport without setting off his suitcase bomb and was captured later.