ALGIERS, (Reuters) – Two people were killed and 17 wounded when Algerian Islamist rebels set off truck bombs outside two police stations east of Algiers in their most elaborate attack in years, witnesses said on Monday.
The simultaneous overnight blasts in Reghaia town 30 km (20 miles) east of the capital and the eastern Algiers suburb of Dergana were the first against police stations in Africa’s second largest country for more than five years.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility but experts, residents and security sources blamed the main rebel group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which has consistently refused peace overtures from the government and announced in September it had joined al Qaeda.
The Reghaia blast burned parts of the two-storey building, gouged a hole in the street one metre (three feet) deep, shattered windows for several blocks and hurled truck parts 100 metres (yards) from the scene. Eighteen cars were burned out.
In Dergana, the twisted hulk of the truck bomb lay beside the police station, itself less badly damaged than a nearby private home whose front walls had partially collapsed.
“I thought it was bombardment (by artillery). My children were sleeping when they heard the noise. They are still in shock,” one resident said.
Sporadic clashes between Islamist guerrillas and security forces normally take place in isolated rural areas of the oil-and gas-exporting Mediterranean country of 33 million.
Long in decline, the GSPC still poses a threat east of Algiers and in the Saharan desert south thanks to criminal and family links and the use of remote terrain that effectively close off sources of intelligence for the army, experts say.
Residents said the Reghaia attack began when gunmen firing automatic weapons hurled a grenade at the entrance to the building at about midnight.
At the same time, accomplices parked a truck rigged with explosives at the side of the building and then made their getaway in a car before setting off the bomb, apparently using a remote-controlled device, the residents said.
Islamists began an armed revolt in 1992 after the then military-backed authorities, fearing an Iran-style revolution, scrapped a parliamentary election that an Islamist political party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was set to win.
Up to 200,000 people were killed in the ensuing bloodshed. The violence has sharply subsided in the past few years.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has vowed to crush militants refusing to surrender after a six-month amnesty expired on Aug. 31. The FIS remains banned and a state of emergency first imposed in 1992 is still in force.
Reghaia is in a region where dozens of GSPC fighters are hiding out. The GSPC, which rejects the amnesty and wants a purist Islamic state, is estimated to have up to 800 fighters.
Lies Boukraa, an expert on the insurgency, told Reuters the twin bombings showed the GSPC had succeeded in implementing a strategy to keep pressure on the government despite being attacked and harried constantly by the security forces. “The shattering of the armed groups into micro-groups (under pressure from the army) has deprived the security services of information,” he said. “I predict an intensification of terrorist attacks in the short term.”