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Europe vows to defend democracy with EU capital 'under attack'

[BRUSSELS] The European Union on Tuesday vowed to defend democracy and tolerance and to combat terrorism "with all necessary means" after triple blasts struck Brussels, the 28-nation bloc's capital.

In an exceptional joint statement, EU leaders said the attacks were an assault "on our open democratic society", voicing solidarity with Belgium.

"The European Union and its member states... are determined to face this threat together with all necessary means," they said.

"This latest attack only strengthens our resolve to defend the European values and tolerance from the attacks of the intolerant. We will be united and firm in the fight against hatred, violent extremism and terrorism."

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Two explosions ripped through Brussels airport, shortly before a third struck a metro train only a few hundred metres (yards) from the European Commission, Council and Parliament - the EU's core institutions.

Around 35 people were killed and more than 200 injured. The Islamic State jihadist group claimed responsibility.

Around Europe, many national leaders characterised the attacks near the EU's institutional heart as a blow aimed at a keystone of European peace.

The EU won the 2012 Nobel Prize for its work in cementing peace in post-war western Europe, although 2015 and 2016 has seen the bloc badly shaken by the Greek financial crisis and a record migrant inflow.

"Our Union's capital is under attack. We mourn the dead and pledge to conquer terror through democracy," the Greek foreign ministry said in a tweet.

It added in French, "Nous sommes tous Bruxellois," - "We are all citizens of Brussels."

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said: "Terrorism will never defeat us. The union of democrats in Europe will always prevail over barbarism and madness."

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was to be lit up in the colours of Belgium on Tuesday night in homage to "the victims, their families and the Belgian people," said city mayor Anne Hidalgo.

"The whole of Europe has been hit," French President Francois Hollande declared, urging the continent to take "vital steps in the face of the seriousness of the threat."

"At this difficult hour, Europe stands up, together and as one. Belgium is not alone," German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said while British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged: "We will never let these terrorists win."

Outside Europe, the United States urged a joint front "regardless of nationality or race or faith" in fighting terrorism, while Russia and Turkey - themselves bloodied in recent attacks - said the blasts rammed home the need to combat terrorism of every hue and across all borders.

President Barack Obama condemned the attacks as "outrageous."

"We can and we will defeat those who threaten the safety and security of people all around the world," Mr Obama said, speaking in the Cuban capital Havana.

UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon said the "despicable attacks... struck at the heart of Belgium and the centre of the European Union."

Mr Ban "is confident that Belgium's and Europe's commitment to human rights, democracy and peaceful coexistence will continue to be the true and lasting response to the hatred and violence of which they became a victim today," a UN statement said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at what he called "barbarous crimes" and expressed condolence.

"(They) demonstrate once again that terrorism has no borders and threatens people around the world. Fighting this evil calls for the most active international cooperation."

A Russian plane was downed by a bomb over the Sinai Peninsula in October that killed 224 people, while Turkey has suffered more than 200 civilian deaths in six major attacks since July, blamed on Kurdish rebels and jihadists.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attacks as "inhuman" and drew a moral parallel between terrorists who struck the EU's institutional capital and Turkey's major cities.

"The terrorists who targeted Brussels, after attacks recently by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) in Ankara and Daesh in Istanbul that cost dozens of lives, are showing once again that they respect no value nor any human and moral limit," Mr Erdogan said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

In the Vatican, Pope Francis described the attacks as "blind violence, which causes so much suffering" and sought "the gift of peace from God" for the bereaved families and the Belgian people.

In Cairo, Sunni Islam's leading seat of learning, Al-Azhar, said the blasts "violate the tolerant teachings of Islam" and urged the international community to confront the "epidemic" of terrorism.

The shockwave of the attacks also reverberated in the US presidential campaign, where Republican frontrunner Donald Trump said the cause of the bloodshed was "no assimilation" by immigrants.

"Belgium is not the Belgium you and I knew from 20 years ago, which was one of the most beautiful and safest cities in the world," Mr Trump told NBC.

"Belgium is a horror show right now. Terrible things are happening. People are leaving. People are afraid. This all happened because, frankly, there's no assimilation."


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