Suicide bombers kill over 50 in Algiers

Suicide bombers kill over 50 in Algiers

By Heba Saleh in Cairo, The Financial Times
Published: December 11 2007 09:47 | Last updated: December 11 2007 19:02

Car bomb attacks in Algeria, blamed by the government on Islamic militants, on Tuesday killed more than 50 people, including several Algerians who worked for United Nations agencies.

The bombs went off in two of the most secure neighbourhoods in Algiers, the capital.

One ripped off the façade of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Hydra, an expensive residential district where other UN buildings and several ministries and foreign embassies are located. The other explosion targeted the constitutional court, also in a well-guarded area and the site of other important state buildings.

UN officials said 12 employees were unaccounted for. If the missing are confirmed dead, it would be the worst single loss of life among UN personnel since 22 died in a bombing in Baghdad in 2003.

The UN said Ban Ki-moon, its secretary-general, “condemned in the strongest possible terms the terrorist attacks in Algiers”.

Although these bombings and similar ones this year recall the political violence that wracked Algeria for most of the 1990s – at times making large parts of the oil-rich country no-go areas for the army and repelling most foreign investment – experts say circumstances this time are different.

“What is happening now is far less frequent but more damaging attacks,” says Gavin Proudley, a London-based expert on international terrorism and the Middle East. “The lesson al-Qaeda has taught its followers is plan carefully, take your time and get it right to get a more successful, higher profile attack.”

No group had claimed responsibility for the bombings by Tuesday night. However, suspicion fell on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a local organisation that rebranded itself last year in an apparent effort to revive its flagging fortunes and attract recruits by aligning its objectives with those of international jihad.

The group, a remnant of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, is made up of a hardcore of militants whom the authorities could neither defeat nor entice to disarm with offers of amnesties.

This is the second time this year that militants have attacked high-profile targets in Algiers. In April, 33 people were killed in two near simultaneous bombings, one of them against the prime minister’s office.

Analysts, however, insist that links with al-Qaeda or other groups operating across North Africa remain unproven.

In a country where conflict within ruling circles was often thought to have contributed to political violence, there is speculation the attacks might be the result of regime infighting.

“Rumours already circulating among Algiers’ political elite maintain that the attack is partially the result of manipulation of Islamist groups by elements within the security services,” said the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

“The speculation maintains that a clan within the security services is concerned by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s push for constitutional amendments that would allow him to run for a third presidential term.”

The attacks came just a few days after a visit by Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, who sealed $7bn of deals for French companies in energy, transport and construction. Algeria, as a leading hydrocarbons exporter, has become a magnet for western businesses.

The country has earmarked $150bn for investment in social and infrastructure projects to try to alleviate the economic woes that led many jobless young men to the Islamist rebels’ cause.

Additional reporting by Harvey Morris in New York