ALGIERS (Reuters) - Bombs killed 30 people in Algeria’s capital on Wednesday, attacks claimed by al Qaeda that raised fears the north African oil exporter was slipping back into the intense political violence of the 1990s.
One of the blasts, said by witnesses to be a suicide bomb, ripped part of the facade off the prime minister’s headquarters in the centre of Algiers. A second bomb hit Bab Ezzouar on its eastern outskirts, the official APS news agency said.
The Al Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the Algiers bombing in an Internet statement and said 45 people had been killed.
The claim could not immediately be verified but the group, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), has taken responsibility for a number of deadly attacks on security forces and foreigners in Algeria since January.
Newspaper editor Mounir Boudjema said the prime minister’s office was hit because it was Algeria’s “World Trade Center” — a prestige target such as the New York buildings hit in 2001.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned what he called the deplorable “terrorist” bombings in Algeria.
Hospital sources put the toll from the two bombings at 30. APS put the toll at 24 dead with 222 wounded.
Leila Aissaoui, 25, stood crying near the government palace.
“I thought explosions in Algiers were over,” she said. “I made a big mistake and I can’t accept this.”
Algeria descended into violence 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.
Residents said Wednesday was the first time since the 1990s that a powerful bomb had hit the centre of the Mediterranean city, where police had stepped up security following a rise in attacks by insurgents in the countryside.
The blast at the prime minister’s headquarters gouged a hole in the multi-story office block, shattering windows and showering rubble on to cars for blocks around.
Algerians said it was the country’s first suicide bombing.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who has been campaigning for May 17 parliamentary elections, told state television the blasts were acts by terrorists.
“They want a media effect and this could have an impact on the economy,” he said. “They want to take Algeria back to years of sadness, but the people want peace and security.”
Crowds of men and women ran screaming and shouting from the scene in the minutes after the downtown blast, with residents saying they feared attackers were planning a second bomb there.
Medics carried the bloodied and burned victims in their arms and on stretchers from the government palace.
“This is a disaster,” said lawyer Tahar bin Taleb, 41. “This is international terrorism. It signals great danger ahead for southern Europe and north Africa.”
One Algerian analyst, Anis Rahmani, said the blasts appeared to be a reply to stepped-up attacks by the army on Islamist insurgents in the Bejaia region in mountains east of Algiers.
Boudjema, who edits the daily Liberte, said: “Since they joined al Qaeda the rebels are clearly opting for symbolic and noisy targets such as the government palace, which is in a way our World Trade Center.”
French President Jacques Chirac, whose country ruled Algeria before independence in 1962, said the blasts were “terrible.” Benita Ferrero-Waldner, European Commissioner for External Relations, described the blasts as barbaric.
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed, Lamine Ghanmi, Tom Pfeiffer, Zakia Abdennebi, and Inal Ersan in Dubai