ALGIERS (AFP) – Algeria reeled Thursday from the aftershock of two suicide bombings that killed at least 24 people and fuelled fears of an increasingly powerful Al-Qaeda front in the North Africa region.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem had struck a defiant pose in the immediate wake of the deadly blasts in Algiers and vowed that national elections scheduled for May 17 would go ahead.
“The objective was a media provocation shortly before the election,” Belkhadem told Al-Arabiya television late Wednesday.
“Those who resort to violence exclude themselves from the political process and elections form part of that political process,” he added.
The bombings, which followed closely from suicide blasts in neighbouring Morocco, were claimed by Al-Qaeda’s branch in North Africa, which published photographs of what it said were the three bombers in an Internet statement.
The statement on an Islamist website often used by the Al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden said the explosions killed at least 53 people.
The Algerian civil defence department put the toll at 24, but said the figure was likely to rise with around 50 of the 222 injured listed as being in a serious condition.
Terrorism experts warned that the attacks signalled a wider resurgence of Islamist militancy in the region that could spread to countries like Tunisia, Libya and further south to the Sahel — an arid strip along the southern Sahara that stretches across six countries from Senegal to Chad.
“We now have a belt which extends from Morocco to Somalia,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist at the Swedish National Defence College.
“The key question is: are they going to internationalise that even further, with action in France for example or attacks on French interests, or actions in Spain by Moroccans?” Ranstorp said.
The first of Wednesday’s attacks was carried out by a bomber who drove an explosives-laden car into a guard post outside the government headquarters in central Algiers, police said.
The blast ripped the facade of the building housing the prime minister’s office, killing 12 people and injuring 135.
Minutes later, bombers driving two cars triggered explosions in the eastern suburb of Bab Ezzouar, on the road to the international airport and not far from one of Algeria’s largest universities.
Another 12 people were killed and 87 wounded in the blasts that demolished an electricity sub-station and badly damaged a police station.
The attackers were seeking to “terrorise the people” of Algeria, Belkhadem said. “But they know that the Algerian people do not accept their approach and their style, as they reject violence and terrorism.”
Muslim countries on Thursday echoed other world leaders in condemning what the Iranian foreign ministry described as an “inhuman and ugly act,” with Jordan’s King Abdullah II denouncing “cowardly acts that have nothing to do with Islam and Islamic ethics”.
For the residents of Algiers, like Amria Abdelmoun, a senior official at a state-run company, the explosions were a terrifying reminder of the “black years of terrorism” in the 1990s when he would leave his home every morning wondering whether he would make it back.
“We were promised that they (the Islamists) would never return and that we had witnessed the death throes of these fanatics,” he said.
At least 33 people, including about 15 security officers, have been killed in clashes with Islamist militants since the beginning of April, according to official figures and media reports.
In February 2006, the government offered an amnesty to any Islamists who surrendered.
The Algerian army has been involved in a 20-day offensive in the eastern region of Kabylie against the Al-Qaeda group that claimed Wednesday’s attack.
Previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, it recently changed its name to the Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb.
“We will not be in peace until we have liberated all the land of Islam from crusaders, apostates and agents, and we have retaken our Andalusia (in southern Spain) and our violated Al-Quds (Jerusalem),” the group said in its statement claiming responsibility.