CASABLANCA, Morocco (Reuters) - Two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside U.S. diplomatic offices in Morocco’s commercial hub Casablanca on Saturday in the first such attack in Morocco in four years, witnesses said.
The bloodshed coincided with a U.S. embassy warning in neighboring Algeria that armed groups might strike in Algiers again, less than a week after suicide bombs there revived fears of a return to the full-scale Algerian conflict of the 1990s.
Only the bombers were killed in the Casablanca attacks, no one was wounded.
Analysts say recent blasts in Morocco and the twin explosions 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.
The increasingly bold bombers are posing a tough test for governments trying to shore up stability in a region on Europe’s southern flank that is dependent to a large extent on oil and gas exports and tourism.
Saturday’s targeted suicide bombings in Casablanca 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 13 bombers, and about 60 were wounded in those attacks.
Witnesses said the first blast on Saturday happened about six meters (yards) from the U.S. cultural center and the second went off about 20 seconds later 60 meters away from the consulate.
Police arrested a third bomber as he tried to flee the scene in a smart 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.
On Tuesday, three suspected would-be bombers killed themselves in a poor neighborhood of Casablanca after police raided a safe house and shot dead a fourth suspect, setting off their explosives so as not to be taken alive by police who were on their tail.
“HOME GROWN” MILITANTS
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, and were cheered by hundreds of onlookers as officers pushed them into a police car to be taken away for questioning.
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,” he said.
The Algeria bombings this week, believed to have been the country’s first suicide car bomb attacks, were claimed by an Islamist armed group known as the al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb.
The claim could not immediately be verified but the group has taken responsibility for several deadly attacks on police, troops and foreigners in recent months.
Algeria descended into bloodshed in 1992 after the then military-backed authorities scrapped a parliamentary election which an Islamist political party was set to win. Up to 200,000 people were killed in the ensuing bloodshed.
That violence subsided in recent years following amnesties for insurgents, but rumbles on in mountains east of Algiers.
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