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At Least 24 Die in Bombings

Blasts rock Casablanca, Morocco, in multiple attacks that are blamed on 'international terrorism.' No U.S. facilities are targeted.

May 17, 2003|Josh Meyer and Greg Miller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Bombs exploded in crowded downtown Casablanca, Morocco, late Friday, killing at least 24 people, injuring 60 and heightening fears of widespread Al Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks just days after a similar series of bombings rocked Saudi Arabia.

Moroccan Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel blamed "international terrorism" for the explosions and said 10 attackers were among those killed. Three others were arrested, he said, including one bomber who was injured in the blasts. Most of the victims were Moroccans, he added.

Four or five explosions took place about 10:45 p.m. local time, damaging a Jewish center, a Spanish restaurant, the Belgian Consulate, the Safir Hotel and other targets, Moroccan officials said. At least three car bombs were involved, they said, and another blast was triggered by a man who had strapped explosives to himself.

The attacks left body parts strewn over the streets of the coastal city, Morocco's largest.

The bombings followed attacks Monday in Saudi Arabia that killed 34 people and came amid a rising drumbeat of warnings from U.S. and other officials that terrorist groups were planning a wave of new violence.

Senior White House officials and counter-terrorism authorities were monitoring the situation closely, in addition to looking for any sign of impending terrorist attacks elsewhere.

"We are monitoring the situation and are obviously concerned about the reports we are hearing," said White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis. "Beyond that, we cannot comment."

Officials said no U.S. government facilities were among the targets, although it was not clear whether any Americans were among the casualties.

Morocco, a Muslim country of about 32 million people, is considered a U.S. ally, and its government quickly condemned the attacks.

"The Kingdom of Morocco will neither be intimidated nor destabilized by those who seek today to attack the democratic and constitutional gains of our country," Sahel said in a statement distributed by the government news agency.

Morocco has long been a hub of activity for Al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups. A court in Casablanca last year sentenced three Saudis to 10 years in prison for leading a failed plot to attack U.S. and British warships in the Strait of Gibraltar.

U.S. officials said it was too early to tell whether Al Qaeda was responsible for the Morocco bombings. But the nature of the attacks -- and months of ominous intelligence warnings -- "would certainly point in one direction," one official said, referring to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

In recent days, the CIA has warned of possible terrorist attacks in a number of areas. North Africa has not been among those trouble spots identified, but a U.S. official said late Friday that recent intelligence chatter has been so extensive that agency analysts had thought strikes were possible anywhere.

If the attacks were carried out by Al Qaeda, they represent a widening of the terrorist organization's war on the West, because the network has not attacked Spanish or Belgian targets before.

The Spanish government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had joined the U.S. and Britain in sponsoring a proposed resolution authorizing military action in Iraq that was rebuffed in the U.N. Security Council. A dozen suspects in Madrid face charges of operating a terrorist cell that allegedly played a support role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Belgium has been used as a hub for logistics, ideological activity and plotting attacks. But the networks there have refrained from hitting Belgian targets, police say, because the country, which does not have stringent anti-terrorism laws, has been a refuge of sorts for extremists. Belgium also opposed the Iraq war.

But a major terrorism trial is set to begin Thursday in Brussels. Belgian prosecutors have charged more than 16 suspects, mostly Tunisians, with belonging to an Al Qaeda network involved in an aborted plot to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris in 2001 and the provision of fraudulent documents to two Belgium-based suicide bombers who killed Ahmed Shah Masoud, a famed anti-Taliban chieftain, in Afghanistan on Sept. 9, 2001.

Hours before the Casablanca attacks, the FBI dispatched at least 60 FBI agents to Riyadh to investigate the well-coordinated trio of suicide bombings in the Saudi capital.

The attacks, believed to be the work of Al Qaeda, were a "massive jolt" to the gulf kingdom and a sign that its counter-terrorism efforts have failed, Adel Jubeir, a Saudi government spokesman, said in Washington.

"Have we failed? Yes. On Monday, we failed," Jubeir said. "We will learn from this mistake. We will ensure it never happens again."

Jubeir had flown from Riyadh to address mounting questions about whether Saudi Arabia could have done more to combat terrorism. At a packed news conference, he vehemently denied accusations by unnamed U.S. officials that the Saudi government had failed to heed their specific warnings about impending Al Qaeda attacks.

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