ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) – Car bombs exploded minutes apart Tuesday in central Algiers, heavily damaging U.N. offices and ripping the facade off the wing of a new government building. Officials said 45 people were killed, and that 12 U.N. employees were missing.
Suspicions quickly focused on the North African wing of al-Qaeda. The date, the 11th, could point to an Islamic terror link. Al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for attacks on April 11 that hit the prime minister’s office and a police station, killing 33 people.
One staff member for the U.N. refugee agency was killed and 12 others from various other U.N. bodies were missing, said Marie Heuze, spokeswoman for the world body in Geneva. She said if all the missing were dead, it would be the deadliest assault on the U.N. since the Baghdad bombing of 2003 that killed 22. “We are looking through the rubble for people,” Jean Fabre, of the U.N. Development Program in Geneva, said after speaking with Marc Destanne De Bernis, the agency’s top official in the Algerian capital. “He doesn’t know the counts of death. He knows that there are about 12 people missing, of which he has no news.”
The bombs exploded around 9:30 a.m. (0830 GMT) and one blew the front off the U.N. refugee agency building, said UNHCR chief spokesman Ron Redmond. It also caused “considerable damage” to the main U.N. building housing the U.N. Development Program and other agencies across the street.
“We can’t even say for certain that the U.N. was being targeted but one can certainly start to draw that conclusion since this explosion took place in a very narrow street right between two UN buildings,” Redmond told CNN.
U.S. President George W. Bush extended condolences for those killed in “this horrible bombing,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner condemned the attacks as “barbarity” and said that while Algeria had made “great progress” in fighting terrorism, “The sordid beast is not yet dead.”
The U.N. offices are in the upscale Hydra neighborhood of Algiers, which houses many foreign embassies and has a substantial foreign population.
At least 15 people were killed in the Hydra attack, said a national official at the civil protection agency who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The other attack, which killed at least 30 people, was in the Ben Aknoun neighborhood of Algiers, where the Constitutional Council is located, said the official.
That council rules on the constitutionality of laws and oversees elections. The blast there ripped chunks off the white facade of the council’s new offices, exposing the red brick skeleton underneath.
The building was inaugurated in September, the council’s Web site says. Eerily, its street is named December 11, 1960, Boulevard, another echo of the date of Tuesday’s attack.
Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni said the attacks appeared to have been caused by car bombs. “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 in remarks carried by the official APS news agency.
“Everything depends on the degree of our vigilance and our degree of mobilization against this. You will have noticed that there are fewer and fewer attacks of this nature. That means that the groups carrying out these sorts of attacks are facing more and more problems.”
Public radio, Algiers Network 3, said the bombs went off about 10 minutes apart.
Some victims of one of the attacks had been riding a school bus, APS said. The remains of an orange bus were in front of the Constitutional Council building.
“I was in my office and heard an explosion in the distance. When I went downstairs, I was hit by another explosion, just in front of our building,” said an unidentified man swathed in bloody dressings who spoke from his hospital bed in footage shown on France-2.
The apparent targeting of U.N. agencies, symbols of world order, was highly unusual for Algeria. Attacks in the past have centered on symbols of the Algerian state.
Tuesday’s attack recalled the Aug. 19, 2003, attack on U.N. headquarters in Baghdad with a truck bomb that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others. 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 last year has seen a series of bombings against state targets, many of them suicide attacks.
Recent bombings have been claimed by al-Qaeda 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-Qaeda.
Once focused on toppling the Algerian government, the group has now turned its sights on 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.