A suicide bomber drove a car full of explosives into a line of applicants at an Algerian police academy Tuesday, killing at least 43 people in the deadliest terrorism attack to jolt this energy-rich U.S. ally since the 1990s.
Witnesses said the blast in the town of Les Issers, some 35 miles east of Algiers, tore a 3-foot-deep crater in the road, ripped off parts of the police academy's roof and damaged much of its facade and nearby buildings.
Bodies covered with multicolored blankets lay amid rubble on the ground. The carcass of a charred car was on its side, its doors blown outward. Singed clothes were piled on a curb.
No group immediately claimed responsibility, but an al-Qaida affiliate previously said it was behind a series of bombings over the past two years in this North African country that has important oil and natural gas fields.
Violence has dramatically increased since 2006, when Algeria's last big extremist group left over from a quieted insurgency in the 1990s renamed itself Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa and joined Osama bin Laden's network.
Suicide attacks were unheard of in Algeria before the group linked up with al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa claimed it carried out suicide strikes in Algiers that killed 33 people in April 2007, and bombings in the capital last December that killed 41 people, including 17 U.N. employees.
While some attacks have struck foreigners, most have targeted the Algerian military and national security services, which are controlled by secularist generals.
"Today's bombing is very symbolic, a pillar of the regime has been hit," said Khadija Mohsen-Finan, head of the North Africa program at the French think-tank IFRI. "I don't recall anything as big since the decade of the civil war."
Algeria's insurgency broke out in 1992 after the army canceled the second round of legislative elections that an Islamist party was expected to win. The ensuing conflict killed up to 200,000 people, with massacres blamed on both sides.
Militants need popular support
Mohsen-Finan said militants are now careful to avoid hitting civilians because they need popular support.
"For extremists to target police is like hitting a symbol of repression. It can help them rally a segment of the population," she said.
She and other analysts blamed the recent surge of violence on an influx of men and technology from al-Qaida in Iraq, and said they expected attacks to continue in the run-up to Algeria's presidential election next year.
Officials said Tuesday's bombing killed at least 43 people and wounded 45.
A security official told The Associated Press the attacker rammed the car into youths waiting to register at the police academy and detonated the load of explosives. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal information on the attack.
Witnesses said all roads within 2 miles of Les Issers were blocked and cell phone networks were scrambled as police sealed off the area. Soldiers strung tarps across the front of the police academy to prevent people from seeing the carnage.
Mohammed, a shopkeeper, said he was awakened by the blast. "It made a huge noise, my windows shook," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because Algerians are often wary of foreign media attention.
'Bodies scattered all over the road'
Another witness said the scene was "a nightmare" when he arrived about the same time as emergency crews.
"There were bodies scattered all over the road, some corpses were completely charred, you couldn't even recognize their faces," he said, also requesting anonymity.
He said several victims were driving by in cars when the bomb went off and their bodies were "meshed into their vehicles" by the blast.
Several newspapers reported Tuesday that an ambush by suspected Islamic militants killed 12 people Sunday. The attack in the Skikda locality, 310 miles east of Algiers, apparently targeted the region's military commander and his police escort, the reports said.
Authorities did not immediately comment on that attack.
In a similar attack three days earlier, militants killed the military chief of the Jijel area, also east of Algiers, local media reported.
Algeria is an important energy exporter, and Tuesday's bombing alarmed the United States and European governments.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said the Bush administration condemned the attack, calling it "another example of the reach of extremists."
"We support the government of Algeria as best we can in trying to fight this," he said.
The European Union said it "very firmly condemns the terrorist acts that have just claimed so many lives." The Algerian people are "once again victims of blind and barbaric terrorist violence," it said.
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy also expressed their support to Algeria's president and offered condolences to the families of victims.