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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Two weeks after Islamic State suicide bombers killed 32 people in Brussels, Belgium's prime minister acknowledged failures in security over the attacks but forcefully rejected foreign criticism.
Fielding questions from international media, Charles Michel dismissed suggestions that Belgium was a "failed state" or that it should reverse the political decentralization which some say let the militants, also blamed for attacks in Paris in November, evade detection due to poor coordination among police forces.
In one swipe at criticism that has come from France, the United States and others, Michel said that the failure to find the prime surviving suspect in the Paris attacks for four months before he was caught close to his family home in Brussels was far from the embarrassment some have suggested.
"Some people said it was scandalous to take a few months to arrest Salah Abdeslam. For Bin Laden, sought by all police throughout the world, it was 10 years after September 11 and 3,000 deaths in New York," Michel said, in reference to the al Qaeda leader killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan in 2011.
In a remark clearly aimed at French criticism since the Paris attacks over Belgian security, he mentioned a case where it took French police four years until 2003 to find the killer on Corsica of the chief state representative on the island.
He said Belgium had convicted more than 100 people on terrorism charges last year and had foiled major attacks, including a plot over a decade ago that was aimed at France and the United States as well a threat snuffed out early last year by a police raid that broke up an Islamic State cell in the town of Verviers.
Saying that no government could guarantee total security, Michel made repeated references to Islamist militants succeeding in carrying out attacks in France, the United States, Britain, Spain and elsewhere and said Belgium had been a pioneer in pushing for greater international coordination of intelligence -- something many larger states have been hesitant about.
"It is possible to do more in Belgium and everywhere in the world, but I cannot accept that there is a failed state," he said. "At the European table, we are systematically the most determined to advance a strategy of increased cooperation."
It was "totally false", he said, to describe Belgium as the weakest link in European security. The attacks in Brussels were evidence by definition, he said, of "failure" but he noted his government's plans to spend more on security and change laws to enhance the authorities' capabilities.
Questioned about whether Belgium had devolved too much power away to fractious French- and Dutch-speaking regions to provide an effective federal security policy, he said it was important to learn lessons and ensure effective coordination but ruled out a major reform of the state, which would be no "magic solution".
He said that long before the attacks he had been calling for the EU to set up a "European FBI or CIA" -- an idea few other governments share for the time being, while most back greater cooperation.
Michel's principle message following the March 22 attacks on Brussels airport and a metro train was, he said, that the city, capital of the European Union and home to NATO, was in the process of returning to normal. Police and troops would remain on the streets, however, and the metro would continue to run a limited service, with half its stations shut, into next week.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald