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Belgian police launch big operation to find Brussels bombing suspects

Witnesses have reported hearing an explosion and gunfire after heavily armed police entered the area.

A Belgian police vehicle drives past passengers who are evacuating the Brussels Airport of Zaventem after at least 13 people were killed and 35 injured as twin blasts rocked the main terminal on 22 march 2016. Picture: AFP.

CAPE TOWN/BRUSSELS - Belgian police have launched a major operation in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, a few days after three bomb attacks in the capital.

Islamic State (Isis) suicide bombers hit Brussels airport and a metro train on Tuesday, killing at least 31 people and wounding some 270 in the worst such attack in Belgian history.

Investigators believe the attacks were carried out by the same Islamic State cell responsible for gun and bomb attacks that killed 130 people in Paris in November.

The district is the same area from which a taxi driver picked up three men believed to have been involved in Tuesday's bombings.

Witnesses have reported hearing an explosion and gunfire after heavily armed police entered the area.

BELGIAN POLICE HOLD SEVEN IN BOMBING INQUIRY, GERMANY ARRESTS TWO

Earlier, police arrested seven people and Germany arrested two in investigations, while authorities in France said they thwarted a militant plot there "that was at an advanced stage".

The Belgian federal prosecutor's office said six people were held during searches in the Brussels neighbourhoods of Schaerbeek in the north and Jette in the west, as well as in the centre of the Belgian capital. Public broadcaster RTBF said a seventh man was arrested in the Forest borough of Brussels early on Friday.

Germany's Der Spiegel magazine said German police had arrested two people. One had received phone messages with the name of the metro station bomber and the word "fin" -- French for "end" -- three minutes before the metro blast, it said. The German interior ministry declined immediate comment.

The Belgian daily De Standaard said on Friday police had arrested a man who was filmed by security cameras in the airport terminal next to two bombers who blew themselves up there. Prosecutors did not confirm the arrest and it was not known if the man was among the seven detained overnight.

The attack in Brussels, home to the European Union and NATO, has heightened security concerns around the world and raised questions about EU states' ability to respond in an effective, coordinated way to the Islamist militant threat.

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Brussels on Friday to offer US assistance in security.

US officials said two of the Brussels victims were Americans. China and Britain said one each of their nationals were among the dead.

"The United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks," Kerry said after meeting Prime Minister Charles Michel.

"Je suis bruxellois. Ik ben Brussel," Kerry said after brief remarks in French and Dutch, expressing solidarity in its two languages that he too felt a citizen of the Belgian capital.

In Paris on Thursday, authorities arrested a French national suspected of belonging to a militant network planning an attack in France, although they said there was no evidence directly tying his plot to the Brussels and Paris attacks.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a televised address that the arrest helped "foil a plot in France that was at an advanced stage".

A French Interior Ministry wanted notice published by French media named him as Reda Kriket, 34, who was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison in Belgium last July for recruiting Islamist fighters for Syria.

After the arrest by the French counterterrorism service, DGSI, the agency raided an apartment building in the northern Paris suburb of Argenteuil. A police source said investigators found acetone peroxide explosives in the apartment.