ALGIERS (Reuters) - Suspected Al Qaeda militants detonated twin car bombs in the Algerian capital on Tuesday, killing up to 67 people in the bloodiest attack in the North African country since an undeclared civil war in the 1990s.
The United Nations said at least five of its employees were feared to have been killed when one blast destroyed the offices of the U.N. Development Program and severely damaged the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“I have no doubt that the U.N. was targeted,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told BBC television. The United Nations has a low profile in Algeria.
Algerian Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni accused the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) of being behind the attacks in Algiers, using the former name of Al Qaeda’s North African wing.
“We are sure that the GSPC is behind it,” Zerhouni told a news conference, adding the death toll at 10 a.m. EST stood at 22. A Health Ministry source said 67 people were killed in the attacks in affluent districts of Algiers.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing claimed responsibility for a similar bombing in Algiers in April and other blasts east of the capital this year that have worried foreign investors in the OPEC member state.
The White House, concerned by Islamist militancy in North Africa, described the attackers as “enemies of humanity”.
One of Tuesday’s blasts occurred near the Constitutional Court building in the Ben Aknoun district and the other was near the U.N. offices and a police station in the Hydra area. Several Western companies have offices in the two areas.
The interior minister said a suicide attacker appeared to have detonated the Hydra car bomb.
Students traveling in a school bus were among the casualties in Ben Aknoun, the official APS news agency said.
In Ben Aknoun, people ran through the streets crying in panic and the wail of police sirens filled the air.
A body lay on the road covered with a white blanket, two buses were burning, debris from damaged cars was strewn across pavements while police struggled to hold back onlookers.
“I want to call my family, but it is impossible. The network is jammed,” said a veiled woman working in a perfume shop.
“There was a massive blast. Everything shattered. Everything fell,” a U.N. worker, who declined to give his name, wrote on a BBC Web site.
“I hid under a piece of furniture so I wouldn’t be hit by the debris ... One of my colleagues had a big wound in her neck. She was bleeding severely.”
Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is recovering from more than a decade of violence that began in 1992 when the then army backed government scrapped an election a radical Islamic party was poised to win. Up to 200,000 people have been killed.
The violence has subsided but attacks this year, including the April 11 bombing that killed 33 in Algiers, has raised fears the country could slip back into the turmoil of the 1990s.
Some attacks or attempted attacks have occurred on the 11th of the month in what Algerians interpret as a form of homage to the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
Western nations have expressed concern at militant Islamist activity in the North African region and dependants of several Western firms operating in Algeria have been repatriated over the past 12 months due to security worries.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Algiers last week, called the blasts “barbaric and profoundly cowardly acts”.
Western security sources appeared shocked by the ease with which the suspected al Qaeda bombers evaded heightened security in Algiers. “The fact they’ve been able to get this done is regarded as highly unusual,” a U.S. official said.
One European official said the targeting of a U.N. building — in line with past al Qaeda statements denouncing the world body as an agent of injustice against Muslims — was a significant new departure for al Qaeda. It has previously focused on Algerian state symbols and foreign energy workers.
Anis Rahmani, editor of the Ennahar newspaper and a security specialist, said: “Al Qaeda wanted to send a strong message that it is still capable despite the loss of several top leaders.”
Officials have said the only way to end years of bloodshed was to pursue “national reconciliation”, a policy that grants amnesty to al Qaeda-linked guerrillas in return for disarmament.
But commentators say the strategy takes no account of a bleak social background of unemployment and poverty that fuels discontent and aids recruitment of suicide bombers.
Editing by Ralph Gowling