Islamist bloodshed returns to Algeria as suicide bombings leave 30 dead

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Algeria suffered what was described as its own September 11 yesterday when a series of almost simultaneous bomb blasts claimed by a branch of al-Qa'ida exploded in the capital, killing about 30 people and wounding more than 160.

The symbolic target of the first attack in central Algiers, apparently carried out by a suicide bomber, was the Prime Minister's office. The explosion left a gash in the six-storey building, and showered rubble on to cars below. Minutes later, three car bombs hit a police station in Bab Ezzouar on its eastern outskirts.

The attacks, condemned by Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem as "criminal and cowardly," were claimed by a group calling itself the Al-Qa'ida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb. It also claimed responsibility for attacks in neighbouring Morocco where on Tuesday authorities said they had foiled a suicide bombing plot against foreign and strategic interests. Three suspects blew themselves up after being pursued, and a fourth was shot dead by police. In its statement on the internet, the al-Qa'ida group published pictures of three "martyrs".

Yesterday's violence was a bitter reminder of the conflict that blighted Algeria for a decade after the cancellation of the second round of 1991 elections that an Islamist party had been poised to win.

At its height, 200 Algerians were being killed each month in the struggle between the armed forces and Islamic militants. In March 2005 a government-commissioned report said security forces were responsible for the disappearances of more than 6,000 citizens during the conflict in the 1990s.

In recent years, the government had embarked on a reconciliation campaign by offering amnesties to rebels who disarmed. But the violence had been rekindled at the beginning of this year, and since last month the army has been active in hunting down militants in the mountains near Algiers.

The Al-Qa'ida Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb was until last January known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. But the movement, which pledged its allegiance to al-Qa'ida in 2003, has long been feared by former colonial ruler France as its main terrorist threat.

The French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, assured Algerian authorities of France's "full solidarity in their fight against terrorism".

A leading newspaper editor, Mounir Boudjema of Liberté, likened the bombings to the 9/11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. He told Reuters news agency: "Since they joined al-Qa'ida the rebels are clearly opting for symbolic and noisy targets such as the government palace, which is in a way our World Trade Centre."

Other Algerian analysts pointed out that the attacks appeared to be in response to the army operations against Islamist insurgents.

Yesterday's blasts came after nine Algerian soldiers and at least six Islamist militants were killed last week when a military convoy was ambushed. It was the first time since the 1990s that Algiers has been targeted by such a powerful blast. "I thought explosions in Algiers were over," said Leila Aissaoui, who stood crying near the complex that houses the Prime Minister's office and other ministries. "I made a big mistake and I can't accept this."

"This is a disaster," said lawyer Tahar bin Taleb, 41, who was buying clothes for his baby daughter when the first bomb went off. "This is international terrorism. It signals great danger ahead for southern Europe and north Africa."

Several Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, have been hit by similar attacks which were blamed on al-Qa'ida.

"Islamists have never stopped gaining ground in the past 50 years, and those fighting them have lost ground," said Antoine Basbous, director of the Paris-based Observatory of Arab Countries. "What we have seen in the past four months is proof that there is a new force at the gates of Europe."

Inside the Algerian terror network

* Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb began life as an Algerian terror network before declaring their allegiance to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida in 2003.

* The group is reportedly led by Abdelmalek Droukdel and operates mainly in the inhospitable mountainous terrain of the Boumerdes and Kabylie regions of Algeria.

* Originally calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb is a militant Sunni organisation that has taken responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in the region and declared its intention to attack western targets.

* Al-Qa'ida's second in command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, recognised the group as their North African emissary in a videotape released on the September 11 anniversary last year and the terror network formally changed its name to Al Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb in January.

* Some American intelligence analysts have accused the organisation of sending jihadis to Iraq, and trying to create an extremist arc in North Africa that could unite the various militant groups across the region, particularly in Morocco, Nigeria, Mauritania and Tunisia.