Brussels train station attacker attempted to blow himself up with a nail bomb as he stood next to a group of passengers before he was shot dead by police, Belgian prosecutors have said.

“Yesterday at 8:39pm a man entered Brussels central station. After passing the counter hall he went down towards a group of passengers downstairs,” prosecutors said in a statement on Thursday morning.

“After retiring a bit he returned in the middle of this group at 8.44pm. He grabbed his suitcase while shouting and causing a small explosion. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

“The suitcase immediately caught fire. The man then left his luggage burning and went down to the platform in pursuit of a station manager. Meanwhile the bag exploded a second time more violently. This bag contained nails and gas bottles.”

The unnamed suspect, a Moroccan national who was not wanted for terror offences, yelled “Allahu Akbar” as he ran towards a soldier, they added.

He was then shot dead by police and the station was evacuated.

The Belgian capital has been on high alert for more than 18 months since Brussels-based Islamic State militants carried out attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November 2015 and bombed Brussels airport and the city’s metro in March last year.

Pictures shared on social media showed what appeared to be a small explosion inside the station. Passengers fled in panic.

Trains into the station, which is one of the busiest in Belgium serving the northern and southern suburbs of Brussels, were stopped as police and army deployed in large numbers.

Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said the attack could “potentially have been very dangerous.”

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