/ 9 September 2007

Car bomb kills dozens in Algeria

A car bomb has killed at least 28 coast guard officers in Algeria just days after a blast ripped through a crowd waiting for the president. The bombings are being seen as a show of strength by the country’s main extremist group, which has gained force after linking up with al-Qaeda.

Though there was no claim of responsibility in either attack, al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate has carried out a spate of bombings that shattered the Algerian government’s efforts — successful until recently — to restore calm after a 15-year Islamist insurgency.

Both bombings targeted symbols of the Algerian state at a time when the government has toughened its tone and intensified military crackdowns on Islamic militants hiding out in remote scrubland.

Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni warned terrorists on Friday that they have ”one choice: turn themselves in or die”.

In the most recent blast, on Saturday, explosives planted in a van ripped through barracks in the northern coastal town of Dellys, about 50km from Algiers.

The bombing appeared timed to kill as many officers as possible, when they were grouped together to raise the flag.

It was not clear whether the bomber was killed in the blast or escaped.

The 28 victims were all coast guard officials, who are part of Algeria’s armed forces, hospital authorities said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media. About 20 others were injured.

The bombing was Algeria’s deadliest since April, when triple suicide bombings against the prime minister’s office and a police station killed 32.

Another attack this week killed at least 22 in a crowd of people in eastern Algeria who were waiting to see visiting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has devoted his eight years in office to ending violence by insurgents, and whose government is a United States ally in the war against terror.

Surge in violence

There was speculation that Bouteflika was the intended target in the Thursday attack, though officials kept silent on the question.

Algeria’s insurgency broke out in 1992, after the army cancelled legislative elections that a now-banned Islamic fundamentalist party appeared poised to win. Up to 200 000 people were killed in the ensuing violence.

Widespread killing was on the wane until recently, but violence surged this year after Algeria’s Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, officially linked up with al-Qaeda, taking the name al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa.

The group claimed responsibility for other attacks this year, including the triple suicide attacks in April and another blast in July, when a suicide bomber blew up a refrigerated truck inside a military encampment, killing 10 soldiers. Besides targeting the military and symbols of the state, militants have also killed foreigners in smaller-scale attacks.

Over the years, Bouteflika’s government has offered amnesty for reformed militants while waging tough military crackdowns on those who refused the offers — a strategy that Bouteflika promises will reconcile the nation.

Those tactics have dramatically reduced the number of fighters, and the GSPC may have joined up with al-Qaeda partly as a way to survive and attract a new generation of fighters.

”To recruit, they can say, we are in international jihad, we need to help our brothers in Iraq, and Afghanistan, not just fight in Algeria,” said Louis Caprioli, the former assistant director of France’s DST counterintelligence agency, who now works for risk-management company Geos.

Despite the spate of attacks, Algerian officials have repeatedly insisted that al-Qaeda in Islamic North Africa is weak from internal disputes and ready to implode. Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem said on Saturday that terrorism was in ”decline” in Algeria, and that militants ”have never succeeded, in 17 years, in their desperate need to strike at the country’s stability”.

The new bombings were militants’ ”response to leaders, to show them, ‘you are wrong, look at our operational abilities,”’ Caprioli said. – Sapa-AP