Two convicted terrorists who had been freed in an amnesty carried out this week’s suicide bombings at United Nations and government buildings that killed 37 people, an Algerian security official said.
One of the bombers was a 64-year-old man in the advanced stages of cancer, while the other was a 32-year-old from a poor suburb that has produced many Islamic militants, the security official said Thursday on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
The government has offered amnesties to try to end a 15-year Islamic insurgency, resulting in thousands of militants turning themselves in, but sparking fierce criticism from the families of victims.
Al-Qaeda’s self-styled North African branch has claimed responsibility for the twin truck bombings on Tuesday, which came 10 minutes apart. Victims included UN staff from around the world, police officers and law students.
United States President George Bush called Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Thursday to discuss the attacks and offer his condolences, White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “President Bush reiterated his commitment to continuing US counter-terrorism cooperation in North Africa in order to bring the perpetrators to justice,” she said.
The Interior Ministry raised the death toll in the bombings to 37, saying six more bodies had been found in the rubble of the UN offices.
In a posting on a militant website, al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa described the UN offices as “the headquarters of the international infidels’ den”. It also posted photos of two men it said were the bombers. Both posed with weapons and wore camouflage, with the younger man smiling.
The Algerian security official identified the older bomber, who struck the UN offices, as Chebli Brahim, who was suffering from cancer and had two sons killed in army crackdowns on militants.
Brahim was a member of the Muslim fundamentalist party the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). He was arrested in a sweep of FIS members after the government banned the party, the official said.
The younger bomber, who targeted Algeria’s Constitutional Council building, was identified as Charef Larbi, from the impoverished Algiers suburb of Oued Ouchayeh, the official said. He had been arrested on the charge of “supporting terrorist groups” and imprisoned in 2004.
Upon Larbi’s release last year, he went into hiding with militants in Algeria’s scrubland, the official said.
Algerian newspapers El Watan and L’Expression reported similar background details about the bombers.
Insurgents battling Algeria’s government have largely focused on symbols of the military-backed government and civilians. The strike against the UN office signalled a change in tactics.
Marie Heuze, chief spokesperson for UN offices in Geneva, said the latest casualty list showed 11 UN staffers died in the attack and five were still missing.
The head of the UN Development Programme, Kemal Dervis, was sent to Algiers by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and has been meeting the families of the victims and visiting the injured, deputy UN spokesperson Marie Okabe said.
It was the deadliest single attack against UN staff and facilities since August 2003, when the world body’s headquarters in Baghdad was hit by a truck laden with explosives. That attack killed 22 people, including the top UN envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and was blamed on a group that later affiliated with al-Qaeda.
On Wednesday, seven survivors were pulled from beneath chunks of concrete, and one woman was transferred to a hospital where both her legs were amputated, said the chief of the emergency team, Djamal Khoudi.
The UN offices are in the upscale Hydra neighbourhood of Algiers, which houses many foreign embassies. The US and British embassies stepped up security warnings.
Algeria’s insurgency broke out in the early 1990s, when the army cancelled the second round of the country’s first multiparty elections to prevent likely victory by an Islamic fundamentalist party. Islamist armed groups then turned to force to overthrow the government, with up to 200 000 people killed in the ensuing violence.
Until recently, the insurgency had been dying out, with militants’ ranks dwindling after military crackdowns and amnesty offers.
But late last year, the main Algerian militant group changed its name to al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa and began waging larger-scale bombings—signs that Islamic fighters were regrouping.—Sapa-AP
Associated Press writer Edith M Lederer contributed to this story from the United Nations