ALGIERS, Algeria – Bombs heavily damaged the prime minister's office and a police station Wednesday, killing at least 23 people and wounding about 160, the country's official news agency said. Al Qaeda's wing in North Africa claimed responsibility.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem, who was unhurt, called the attack a "cowardly, criminal terrorist act" as he spoke to reporters outside his wrecked offices.
The attacks were a devastating setback for the North African nation's efforts to close the chapter on its Islamic insurgency that has killed 200,000 people. After years of relative calm, the Al Qaeda affiliate recently has recently waged several smaller attacks in the oil- and gas-rich nation.
According to Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, a spokesman for Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were carried out by three homicide bombers in trucks packed with explosives.
Belkhadem declined to say how many had been killed or wounded. The official APS agency said at least 23 people were killed and 160 wounded in the two attacks but gave no breakdown. The other bombing targeted the police station of Bab Ezzouar, east of the capital, Algiers, on the road to its airport.
Witnesses said at least one of the attacks appeared to have been a car bomb.
A charred, wrecked car lay on the pavement about 98 feet from the gates of the government building — a modern white, block-like high-rise that also houses the Interior Ministry.
On Tuesday in neighboring Morocco, police surrounded a building in Casablanca where four terrorism suspects were holed up, causing three to flee and blow themselves up with explosives. The fourth was shot to death by a police sharpshooter as he apparently tried to detonate his bomb. A police officer was killed and 10 people, including a young child and a policeman, suffered injuries.
Since five suicide bombings that killed 45 people in Morocco in May 2003, police have pursued an unprecedented crackdown on suspected militants, arresting thousands of people, including some accused of working with Al Qaeda and its affiliates to plot attacks in Morocco and abroad.
Algeria's insurgency broke out in 1992, after the army canceled legislative elections that an Islamic party appeared set to win.
Since then, violence related to the insurgency has left an estimated 200,000 dead — civilians, soldiers and Islamic fighters — according to the government.
Military crackdowns and amnesty offers had turned them into a ragtag assembly of fighters in rural hideouts, and for several years, the government appeared to have them basically under control.
Algeria's main militant group recently changed its name to Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa and began targeting foreigners — signs that the country's dwindling ranks of Islamic fighters were regrouping.
The latest attacks, especially on Belkhadem's office, showed that the militants are far from beaten, even though experts say that they number perhaps no more than several hundred people.
Belkhadem expressed bitterness at insurgents who refused the amnesty offers.
"The Algerian people stretched out a hand to them, and they respond with a terrorist act," he said.
Al-Jazeera said it received a telephone call from a spokesman for Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa, identified as Abu Mohammed Salah, who claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The caller said that the explosions were carried out by three al-Qaeda members in trucks "filled" with explosives. His claims could not be independently confirmed.
"We won't rest until every inch of Islamic land is liberated from foreign forces," the spokesman said in a recording of the phone call played on Al-Jazeera.
Fayza Kebdi, a lawyer who works in an office opposite the government building, said the blast, about 10:45 a.m. local time, shattered her windows and blew her husband clear across the room.
"We thought the years of terrorism were over," she said. "We thought that everything was back to normal. But now, the fear is coming back."
The attacks were the deadliest to hit the Algiers region since 2002, when a bomb in a market in a suburb killed 38 people and injured 80.
Police cordoned off stairs leading up to the government building with orange police tape, and paramedics raced up the steps with stretchers. Paramedics escorted a man with blood on his head into an ambulance. Another woman, looking dazed and in tears, was checked for head injuries.
A March 3 bombing of a bus carrying workers for a Russian company killed a Russian engineer and three Algerians. A December attack near Algiers and targeting a bus carrying foreign employees of an affiliate of Halliburton killed an Algerian and a Lebanese citizen.
Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa — the new name for the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, known by its French abbreviation GSPC — claimed responsibility for both attacks.