CASABLANCA, Morocco (Reuters) – Two suicide bombers killed themselves in an attack on U.S. diplomatic offices in Morocco’s commercial hub Casablanca on Saturday in the first such targeted bombings in four years, witnesses said.
Police arrested a third bomber as he tried to flee the scene of the mid-morning attack on the U.S. cultural centre and the nearby U.S. consulate in an upscale district of the port city, where three suicide bombers blew themselves up four days ago.
“He threw down his explosives belt and ran away. Police chased him and caught him,” said the owner of a coffee shop in the neighborhood, who declined to be identified.
They also later arrested the leaders of the armed group to which the two suicide bombers and those responsible for Tuesday’s blasts belonged, a security official said.
The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the two arrested men — the head and deputy head of the gang — had given investigators the names of the group’s members and their plans for future attacks.
Analysts say the recent series of suicide bombings in Morocco and twin blasts that killed 33 in Algiers on Wednesday signal a sharp expansion in the threat from armed groups seeking to establish Islamic rule in north Africa.
On Tuesday three suicide bombers killed themselves in a poor neighborhood of Casablanca after police raided a safe house and shot dead a fourth bomber, setting off their explosives so as not to be taken alive by police who were on their tail.
Saturday’s targeted suicide bombings were the first in Morocco since May 2003 when attackers set off at least five explosions in Casablanca that hit a Spanish restaurant, a five-star hotel and a Jewish community centre. Forty-five people were killed, including 12 bombers, and about 60 were wounded.
A senior police source said Saturday’s bombers clearly intended to attack the U.S. buildings. “They made that statement with their own bodies,” the source said. He said the two could not get closer to the buildings due to security fortifications.
A police source said only the two bombers were killed.
Police later arrested three other men, winning cheers from hundreds of onlookers as officers pushed the three into a police car to be taken away for questioning.
Witnesses said the first blast happened about six meters (yards) from the cultural centre and the second went off about 20 seconds later 60 meters away from the consulate.
The government has said it was on alert for a gang who planned to blow up foreign ships docking at Casablanca’s port and hotels in Morocco’s main tourist cities.
The Rabat government says the bombers were “home-grown” militants with no links to international terror networks.
However, analyst Miloud Belkadi said the targets of Saturday’s bombings set them apart from those of Tuesday which were clearly detonated as a tactic to deny pursuing police.
“The bombing today underscores links with al Qaeda strategy focusing on U.S. targets. They are different from the suicide bombers killing themselves in slums,” he said.
The killings of the suicide bombers followed bombings in neighboring Algeria this week where 33 people were killed in attacks claimed by an Islamist armed group known as the al Qaeda Organization on the Islamic Maghreb.