Truck bombs kill at least 26 near Algerian U.N. building

 

 

By Hassane Meftahi

ALGIERS, Algeria – Truck bombs exploded minutes apart Tuesday in central Algiers, heavily damaging U.N. offices and partly ripping the facade off a government building. At least 26 people were killed, including U.N. workers, and scores were wounded, officials said.

The North African branch of al-Qaida claimed responsibility in a Web site posting and said suicide bombers carried out the attack. Jihadists in Iraq who later affiliated with al-Qaida were blamed for attacking the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, killing 22.

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.

Al-Qaida-linked militants who were arrested after deadly April bombings in Algeria had identified those buildings as among their future targets, the official APS news agency quoted him as saying.

A small tanker truck was used in the U.N. attack, while a van used in the other bombing, he said.

A statement on a militant Web site said two “martyrs” of al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa drove vehicles each loaded with more than 1,700 pounds of explosives “to attack the headquarters of the international infidels’ den” and the Algerian Constitutional Council.

“This is another successful conquest … carried out by the Knights of the Faith with their blood in defense of the wounded nation of Islam,” said the statement.

The attacks killed 26 people, an Interior Ministry statement said, adding that among the dead were two U.N. staffers – one Danish, the other Senegalese. Also dead were three people from Asia, although their nationalities were not given.

As many as 177 people were wounded.

U.N. spokeswoman Marie Okabe said in New York that five U.N. employees were believed to be 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.

Initial reports from hospital and rescue officials had put the death toll at 45.

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 as a “cowardly strike” and ordered a review of security.

“This is just unacceptable,” said a somber Ban, who was in Bali, Indonesia, 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.

“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.

The U.N. Development Program building collapsed, and the refugee agency’s office across the street sustained damage, Okabe said. The development program building also housed other U.N. agencies, including the World Food Program, the International Labor Organization and the U.N. Population Fund, and employed 175 people, about 115 locally based staff, she said.

The soot-covered remains of parked cars mangled by the blast littered the street in the upscale Hydra neighborhood, which houses many embassies and has a substantial foreign population.

The bomb 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 APS news agency said, and the remains of an orange bus were outside the Constitutional Council building.

Mohammed Faci, 23, told AP Television News that was in a different bus that was jolted by the blast and he broke his arm.

“It was horror,” Faci said, describing the pandemonium following the explosion that gutted the other bus. “I’m glad I wasn’t in that first one.”

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.”

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 U.S. 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.

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.

Associated Press writers Alexander G. Higgins and Bradley S. Klapper in Geneva, Angela Doland, Jenny Barchfield and John Leicester in Paris, and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report