43 killed in attack on Algerian police school

43 killed in attack on Algerian police school

AFP, 19 august 2008

ISSERS, Algeria (AFP) — A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside a police school in Algeria on Tuesday, killing 43 people and raising fears of an Al-Qaeda-linked campaign in north Africa.

Witnesses told AFP the attacker drove a car packed with explosives at the main entrance to the school as university graduates waited outside to start an entry exam in the hope of joining the paramilitary police force.

Al-Qaeda has claimed previous attacks in Algeria and neighbouring Morocco but officials gave no indication who was behind the strike in Issers, 60 kilometres (40 miles) east of Algiers.

The interior ministry said the dead included 42 civilians and one police official, and added that 32 of the 45 wounded were also civilians.

« It’s utter carnage, » said the elderly father of one of those killed in the attack. « It’s a catastrophe, » he said, weeping. « May God punish them for the crime they have committed against these youngsters and their country. »

Another candidate survived because he went to buy cigarettes but his father, mother and brother were killed in the blast, witnesses said.

It was the deadliest attack this year in Algeria and worse than the December 2007 attacks in Algiers against government and United Nations buildings, which killed 41 people and injured many others.

The December attacks had been claimed by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), an Algeria-based group which last year declared allegiance to Al-Qaeda and renamed itself Al-Qaeda’s Branch in the Islamic Maghreb.

As well as devastating the entrance to the school, Tuesday’s blast destroyed several nearby houses, blew out windows in nearby shops and uprooted trees.

The explosion left a crater several metres (feet) wide.

Emergency workers gathered up the remains of the dead, wrapping them in blankets and placing them in waiting ambulances.

Security forces sealed off the area and closed off roads leading into Issers.

Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, surrounded by heavy security, told reporters at the scene: « This is an act against Algerians. »

The United States condemned the attack, saying it was another grim reminder of terrorism and offered to help investigate the atrocity.

« We condemn this attack, it’s just another example of the reach of extremists and we would support the government of Algeria as best as we can in trying to fight this scourge, » said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

« It’s another reminder (that) terrorism can hit any place, anytime, anywhere and we all — the international community — have to stamp this out because in the end, terrorism is a threat to all of us, » he told reporters.

A statement from the French EU presidency expressed support for Algeria’s « fight against terrorism. »

« Once again, the Algerian people are victims of indiscriminate and barbaric terrorist attacks, » it added.

In neighbouring Morocco, King Mohammed VI expressed his condolences in a message to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika condemning what he called an « abject terrorist attack ».

The bombing was just the latest in a series on security forces and comes in the run-up to Ramadan, when Muslims observe a month of fasting and spiritual reflection.

Between January and July, Algerian courts have handed down 218 death sentences in absentia to armed Islamists on the run, according to judicial officials.

A few hours after Tuesday’s attack, GSPC founder and former head of the group, Hassan Hattab, called on the Islamists and those tempted to join them « to give up the armed fight and lay down their weapons ».

Hattab, who claimed to have given up the armed struggle himself in September 2003, was apprehended by the Algerian authorities four years later and is kept at unknown location pending his trial.