Car bombs exploded minutes apart Tuesday in central Algiers, heavily damaging U.N. offices and partly ripping the facade off a new government building. The interior minister said 26 people were killed, including U.N. workers, but hospital and rescue officials gave figures far higher.
Suspicions quickly focused on militants affiliated with al-Qaida, which claimed responsibility for attacking the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003. The North African branch of al-Qaida claimed responsibility in a Web site posting Tuesday.
The two bombs exploded around 9:30 a.m., and one had deliberately targeted United Nations offices, according to the head of the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva. The other bomb struck outside Algeria’s Constitutional Council, said Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni.
The attacks killed 26 people, said an Interior Ministry statement Tuesday evening. It said the dead included two U.N. staffers, one Danish, the other Senegalese, as well as three people from Asia, although their nationalities were not given.
Hospital and rescue officials reported the death toll at 45, and one doctor said it was as high as 60.
U.N. spokeswoman Maria Okabe said in New York that preliminary information indicated four U.N. employees were among the dead. Ron Redmond, chief spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, said only two UNHCR staff members — both drivers from Algeria — were killed, and that more than a dozen workers were injured, one seriously. All missing employees were accounted for, he added.
A national official at the civil protection agency who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier that 45 people were killed. A doctor at one Algiers hospital who said he was in contact with staff at other area hospitals put the death toll at 60.
'No doubt' U.N. targeted
UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres “said he has no doubt that the U.N. was targeted,” according to Redmond. He added that “it is a very small street that just separates a U.N. compound, and it happened right there.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the bombings.
“This is just unacceptable,” said a somber Ban, who was on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali for a U.N. climate conference. “I would like to condemn it in the strongest terms. It cannot be justified in any circumstances.”
The Bush administration added its denunciation.
“We condemn this attack on the United Nations office by these enemies of humanity who attack the innocent. The United States stands with the people of Algeria, as well as the United Nations as they deal with this senseless violence,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Zerhouni said the attacks were caused by car bombs, with the one at the U.N. offices seemingly driven by a suicide bomber.
“An attack like this is among the easiest actions to carry out. I have always said that we are not safe from these sorts of attacks,” he told reporters.
Some victims were on school busThe U.N. offices are in the upscale Hydra neighborhood of Algiers, which houses many foreign embassies and has a substantial foreign population. One damaged U.N. building appeared to have collapsed in on itself, spilling its insides into a street littered with the soot-covered remains of parked cars crunched by the force of the blast.
The blast at the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of laws and oversees elections, ripped chunks off the white facade of the new building, exposing the red brick underneath, and left a hip-deep crater in the road.
Some victims had been riding a school bus, the official APS news agency said, and the remains of an orange bus were outside the Constitutional Council building.
Al-Qaida has called for attacks on French and Spanish interests in North Africa. Osama bin Laden’s chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, in September called for jihad in North Africa to “cleanse (it) of the children of France and Spain.”
It was not immediately clear why the U.N. might have been targeted.
Tuesday’s date — Dec. 11 — could point to an Islamic terrorism link. Al-Qaida has struck on the 11th in several countries, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for attacks on April 11 that hit the Algerian prime minister’s office and a police station, killing 33 people.
Dec. 11 has another meaning for Algerians. On that date in 1960, pro-independence demonstrations were held in Algeria against colonial ruler France. The Constitutional Council is located on December 11, 1960, Boulevard.
Anne Giudicelli, a former French diplomat specializing in the Middle East who runs the Paris-based consultancy Terrorisc, said the attacks appeared to have the “clear signature” of al-Qaida-affiliated groups — in the choice of targets and use of car bombings, and in the fact that they were simultaneous.
“They attacked ... neighborhoods where there is plenty of security, which is a way to show their strength in the war with security services,” she said. “Each side is counting their points. There is a very clear escalation, it’s a way of saying, ’We are stronger than you thought we were.’ ”
Algeria has been battling Islamic insurgents since the early 1990s, when the army canceled the second round of the country’s first multiparty elections, stepping in to prevent likely victory by an Islamic fundamentalist party.
Islamist armed groups then turned to force to overthrow the government, with up to 200,000 people killed in the ensuing violence.
The past year has seen a series of bombings against state targets, many of them suicide attacks.
Recent bombings have been claimed by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa. That was the name adopted in January after the remnants of the insurgency, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, formally linked with al-Qaida.
Once focused on toppling the Algerian government, the group has now turned its sights to international holy war and the fight against Western interests. French counterterrorism officials say it is drawing members from across North Africa.
A Sept. 6 attack during President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s visit to the eastern city of Batna killed 22 people, and a suicide bombing two days later on a coast guard barracks in the town of Dellys left at least 28 dead.