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Toll in Algiers blasts disputed amid fears of a new civil war

Authorities say the number of dead has risen to 31, but a news source estimates it is more than twice that.

December 13, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — Algerian officials said Wednesday that the number of dead from a double bomb attack in Algiers had risen to 31, but that figure was disputed by a leading newspaper, which cited hospital sources as estimating that 72 people were killed.

Rescue workers in the Algerian capital continued to search for survivors in heavily damaged offices of the United Nations, where 11 agency workers died in one of Tuesday's blasts. The attacks were carried out by two suicide car bombers belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The organization has links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and seeks to overthrow the government.

Top Algerian officials moved to ease fears that their North African country would descend into a civil war reminiscent of the 1990s. During that decade, an estimated 150,000 people died in fighting between government forces and Islamic rebels. Officials said today's militants lacked the support and funding to sustain a formidable insurgency; the nation has enjoyed relative calm in recent years because of government amnesty programs.

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told French radio Wednesday that "the situation today is that Algerians are completely united against terrorism. This cannot be a situation of civil war. . . . Everyone is targeted sooner or later. This is an evil that can be eradicated, but we cannot do it alone."

The United Nations has sent a team to Algiers to investigate the bombing at its compound, which destroyed the office for the U.N. Development Program and severely damaged the headquarters of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. That strike occurred minutes after an explosion ripped off the facade and caused heavy damage to Algeria's Constitutional Council building.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is in Indonesia for a conference on climate change, issued a statement saying that words could not express his "sense of shock, anger and outrage."

An Algerian journalist who asked not to be named said: "Fire brigades early [Wednesday] morning were talking through the rubble to people trapped inside. They were also using cameras to look through the debris."

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, formerly known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, is estimated to have several hundred fighters. Many of its followers have been battling the government in this former French colony for 15 years. The group trains in mountains and deserts and has become more proficient in terrorist tactics.

Analysts say the government will most likely tighten security in the largest cities and raid the group's strongholds, in a crackdown similar to sweeps in April that led to the arrests of dozens of militants.

"Each day it becomes more experienced, and it has already launched a fierce guerrilla war against authorities," said Bu Allam Ghemrasa, an Algerian journalist and terrorism expert.

"The strength of the group lies in ambushes and suicide bombings," he said. "It is hard for the authorities to face these operations using traditional methods. The two bombings that occurred yesterday proved on the ground that these traditional methods were useless."

In postings on Islamic websites, the militant group identified the suicide bombers as Ammi Ibrahim abou Othmane and Rahmane Assmi. It said the attacks were "to defend the nation of Islam and to humiliate the crusaders and their agents, the slaves of the United States and the sons of France."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy in The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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