Suicide Car Bomber Kills 43 in Algeria

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

BERLIN, Aug. 19 -- A suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed car into an Algerian police academy early Tuesday, killing 43 people in the latest mass-casualty attack in the North African country.

There was no immediate assertion of responsibility. But analysts said the bombing was probably sponsored by an al-Qaeda affiliate that has rekindled a long-running civil conflict between the military-backed government and radical Islamist forces.

According to the Algerian Interior Ministry, the bomber targeted a police training school in the city of Issers, about 35 miles east of the capital, Algiers. The Reuters news agency quoted witnesses as saying that the driver plowed into a crowd of young people lined up outside the academy awaiting the start of entrance exams.

At least 45 people were wounded, the official Algerian Press Service reported. All but one of the dead were civilians, the Interior Ministry said, although witnesses said many of those were applying to join the police force.

Algeria has been plagued by civil war and terrorist attacks since the early 1990s, with an estimated 200,000 dead, but until recently, suicide bombings were extremely rare.

That changed in April 2007, when suicide bombers killed 33 people in synchronized attacks on the Government Palace in Algiers and a suburban police station. More suicide attacks followed, including one last December in which two car bombers destroyed a U.N. office complex and a court building in the capital, killing 41.

Similar attacks on a smaller scale have continued since then. On Aug. 9, eight people were killed when a suicide bomber drove a car into a police station in Zemmouri, a city five miles north of Issers, near the Mediterranean coast.

Another suicide car bombing on Aug. 3 wounded 25 people in the nearby town of Tizi Ouzou. Responsibility for that attack was asserted by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an umbrella group of Islamist fighters from across North Africa that was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.

"We tell the sons of France and the slaves of America, and their masters, too, that our finger is on the trigger and the convoys of martyrs are longing to rampage your bastions in defense of our Islamic nation," the group said in a statement posted afterward on the Internet. Algeria is a former French colony that has strengthened ties with the United States since 2001, particularly on counterterrorism.

Algeria had been a major supplier of suicide bombers willing to go to Iraq to target foreign troops, as well as Iraqi civilians opposed to al-Qaeda. But as the number of attacks in Iraq has declined, al-Qaeda has become more successful at persuading recruits to stay home and carry out operations on Algerian soil.

"There's really very little doubt that they've been successful at that," said Isabelle Werenfels, a North Africa specialist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

Analysts said the bombings are a sign that al-Qaeda's wing in North Africa has become stronger overall, although Algerian authorities have characterized the violence as the last gasp of a weakened insurgency.

During a visit to the scene of Tuesday's bombing, Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni reiterated the government's "commitment to carry on the fight against the criminal hordes until their elimination," according to the Algerian Press Service.

In Washington, U.S. officials condemned Tuesday's attack.

"We support the government of Algeria as best we can in trying to fight this," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "It's another reminder of how terrorism can hit you any place, anytime, anywhere."

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