Brussels attacker escaped from Tunisian prison: prosecutor
The gunman who shot dead two Swedish football fans in Brussels last weekend had escaped from a Tunisia prison where he was serving a long sentence, which prompted Tunisian officials to seek his extradition from Belgium, prosecutors said Sunday.
Belgian authorities received the extradition request in August 2022 but it was not dealt with.
Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne resigned Friday over what he called a "monumental error".
The capital's chief prosecutor Tim De Wolf offered an explanation to the press on Sunday.
"The serious under-staffing at the Brussel prosecutor's office played a role, but... that does not justify it," he said.
De Wolf said the extradition file had been received in September last year and had probably been forgotten in a file cabinet.
"None of the colleagues involved remember what became of this specific file a year ago. There is no trace of it being handled," he said.
The attacker, 45-year-old Abdesalem Lassoued, had been sentenced "to more than 26 years in prison in Tunisia in 2005, but had escaped from prison in January 2011," the prosecutor said.
Tunisian authorities "signalled" the case on July 1 2022 via Interpol, De Wolf added.
At that time the document mentioned only "a prison escape", he said.
It was followed by a "series of annexes" six weeks later, but the file was lost at the prosecutor's office.
Interior Minister Annelies Verlinden said on Saturday that a lack of detail in the first "red notice" from Interpol meant the dossier had not been handled immediately.
The prosecutor did not mention on Sunday why the Tunisian had been jailed, but Belgian media reported he committed several murders.
The shootings of the two Swedish fans on Monday, just before the start of a Belgium-Sweden international football match, have renewed debate in Belgium over judicial and administrative errors in following up on radicalised persons, particularly by the immigration services, though Lassoued was not on the authorities' radar.
Official documents showed that Lassoued had lodged asylum applications in Norway, Sweden, Italy and Belgium. He had stayed in Belgium illegally after his bid for asylum was rejected in 2020.
An order was issued for his expulsion in March 2021 but never carried out.
Police shot and killed Lassoued after tracking him down on Tuesday.
Over the weekend the government announced that more staff would be deployed for the prosecutor's office and the federal police in Brussels.