CASABLANCA (Reuters) - Three suspected suicide bombers blew themselves up on Tuesday following a police raid on a house in a Casablanca slum in which a fourth man was shot dead, police sources said.
Two of the men had been on the run since the dawn raid in Fida neighborhood in which one suspected Islamist militant was killed by police and an accomplice blew himself up after he was trapped on a roof terrace, the sources and witnesses said.
The four were members of a gang of up to 12 that police have been looking for since March 11, when the alleged leader of a suicide squad detonated his explosives belt in a cybercafe to stop police arresting him, the police sources added.
They said they believed the bombers had started wearing the belts all the time to stop security forces taking them alive.
Morocco has been on the alert for attacks since 2003 when 13 suicide bombers killed themselves and 32 other people in central Casablanca in an attempt to punish the country for being a staunch ally of the United States in its “war on terror”.
The MAP state news agency said two police officers were injured when the third suspect blew himself up later in the day, and that one of the officers died from his wounds.
“The fourth suicide bomber blew himself up when he saw there was no way for him to break through the police cordon,” a senior security source told Reuters, adding that he was the last suspect in a group targeted by the raid.
“At least 19 people including five policemen were injured when the fourth suicide bomber blew himself up,” said a policeman at the scene adding that the bomber appeared to deliberately target the police.
“He sneaked through the police cordon and then elbowed his way through a crowd on onlookers and journalists to move close to a cluster of policemen where he blew himself up,” the policeman said.
MAP identified the third suspected suicide bomber as 37-old Rachidi Mohamed and said he belonged to a “terrorist cell” behind the killing of paramilitary gendarme in 2003.
Residents said police had cordoned off part of Fida, a poor working-class suburb of Morocco’s economic capital, and were trying to trace other suspects who had managed to escape.
Hundreds of onlookers were near the house that was raided and a forensic investigation team sifted through debris after the first bomb blast.
Zohra, who lived in the house next-door, said she had been awoken by gunfire early in the morning and heard a loud blast shortly afterwards.
She said neighbors told her a young man had blown himself up on the roof after police cornered him.
“He and three or four other young men moved into a flat in the building about two months ago,” she told Reuters. “They aren’t from around here. They kept themselves to themselves. They dressed normally, in jeans and trainers.”
Abdellatif, 40 and unemployed, said he was with some friends when a police car screeched to a halt in front of them and officers dashed into a side street.
“A while later two guys ran out of a house with the police in pursuit,” said Abdellatif. “The police officers ordered the men to stop and one of the men shot at them. The police shot back and he fell. The other got away.”
Security officials said last month police foiled a plot by Islamist militants to blow up foreign ships at the port of Casablanca, and other landmarks, including hotels in Marrakesh and Agadir. Police had arresting more than 40 people, most of them living in Casablanca’s slums, they said.
Additional reporting by Lamine Ghanmi in Rabat