ISSERS, Algeria (Reuters) - A bomb at an Algerian military academy killed 43 people and wounded 45 on Tuesday, the interior ministry said, one of the bloodiest incidents in years in the OPEC member state.
A ministry statement said the target of the attack was the gendarmerie training school at Issers, 55 km (34 miles) east of the capital Algiers. It said 42 of the dead were civilians and one of the dead and 13 of the wounded were gendarmes — armed paramilitary soldiers.
The bombing follows several recent attacks by al Qaeda’s north African wing, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility.
The local al Qaeda affiliate has claimed several attacks including the twin suicide bombings of U.N. offices and a court building in Algiers in December 2007 which killed 41 people.
Witnesses said Tuesday’s attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who rammed his car into a group of prospective recruits lining up to get into the school for qualifying exams.
“Most of the dead were young men aged between 18 and 20. They were in line waiting to enter the school for recruiting exams when they were mowed down by the blast,” a witness said.
“The car explosion destroyed part of the outer wall of the school and blew a huge crater into the ground, about three meters (yards) from the main gate,” he said by telephone.
Many young Algerians see military jobs as the ticket to a better future amid fierce competition for their hearts and minds between the military and radical Islamists, analysts say.
Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb is the most effective rebel group in the country of 34 million, a major oil and gas supplier to Europe which is emerging from more than a decade of conflict with Islamist rebels.
Algerian papers said rebels linked to al Qaeda had killed eight policemen, three soldiers and a civilian in successive ambushes in eastern Algeria on Sunday.
No group made an immediate claim of responsibility.
Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, who visited the blast site with top security officials, was quoted by the official news agency APS as saying:
“These terrorist gangs are seeking through attacks against civilians to loosen the net closing around them as the security forces drive them to the wall.”
He and other officials have made similar comments before.
Political analyst Mahmoud Belhimer said, “We should not play down the terrorist menace as the authorities are doing ... Tuesday’s attack showed that they are well-entrenched on the ground and seem to be able to hit significant targets.”
Conflict began in Algeria in 1992 when a military-backed government scrapped elections a radical Islamic party was poised to win. About 150,000 people have died in the ensuing violence.
The bloodshed has eased in recent years but a hard core of several hundred rebels fight on as part of al Qaeda’s affiliate, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
The group’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, told the New York Times last month that increasing numbers of young men around the region were joining the group, frustrated with persistent poverty and angry at what he called the West’s war on Islam.
GSPC founder Hassan Hattab, who surrendered to the authorities last year in response to a government amnesty offer, called on the rebels on Tuesday to lay down their arms.
“I advise you to reconsider and refrain from what you are doing and return to the arms of your society and your families,” Hattab said in comments published by the Algerian newspaper Ennahar, which specializes in security matters.
Reporting by William Maclean and Tom Pfeiffer; writing by Lamine Ghanmi; editing by Tim Pearce