ALGIERS (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda militants detonated twin car bombs in Algeria’s capital on Tuesday, killing at least 26 people and destroying U.N. offices in one of the bloodiest attacks since civil strife in the 1990s.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing said in a statement on an Islamist Internet site that two of its members carried out the bombings in the North African oil and gas exporting country.
The group posted pictures of what it said were the two suicide bombers holding assault rifles. No independent verification of the statement was immediately available.
An official tally put the death toll at 26, while a Health Ministry source said 67 people were killed. Algeria’s state radio, monitored by the BBC in London, said the dead included three Asian nationals, a Dane and one Senegalese.
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem said the government had no reason to hide casualties and that it was immoral for international media to “bid up” the death toll.
The United Nations said at least five of its employees were feared to have been killed when one blast destroyed the offices of the U.N. Development Program and badly damaged the offices of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“I have no doubt that the U.N. was targeted,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told BBC television. The United Nations has a low profile in Algeria.
Algerian state television reported six people were pulled from the wreckage of the U.N. offices during the evening and that rescuers were still searching for other possible survivors.
Interior Minister Noureddine Yazid Zerhouni accused the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat of being behind the attacks, using the former name of Al Qaeda’s North African wing.
Al Qaeda’s North African wing claimed responsibility for a similar bombing in Algiers in April and other blasts east of the capital this year that have worried foreign investors in the OPEC member state.
The White House, concerned by Islamist militancy in North Africa, described the attackers as “enemies of humanity”.
One of Tuesday’s blasts occurred near the Constitutional Court building in the Ben Aknoun district and the other was near the U.N. offices and a police station in the Hydra area. Several Western companies have offices in the two areas.
Students travelling in a school bus were among the casualties in Ben Aknoun, the official APS news agency said.
In Ben Aknoun, people ran through the streets crying in panic and the wail of police sirens filled the air.
A body lay on the road covered with a white blanket, two buses were burning, debris from damaged cars was strewn across pavements while police struggled to hold back onlookers.
“I want to call my family, but it is impossible. The network is jammed,” said a veiled woman working in a perfume shop.
“There was a massive blast. Everything shattered. Everything fell,” a U.N. worker wrote anonymously on a BBC Web site.
Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is recovering from more than a decade of violence that began in 1992 when the then army backed government scrapped an election a radical Islamic party was poised to win. Up to 200,000 people have been killed.
The violence has subsided but attacks this year, including the April 11 bombing that killed 33 in Algiers, has raised fears the country could slip back into the turmoil of the 1990s.
Some attacks or attempted attacks have occurred on the 11th of the month in what Algerians interpret as a form of homage to the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
Western nations have expressed concern at militant Islamist activity in the North African region and dependants of several Western firms operating in Algeria have been repatriated over the past 12 months due to security worries.
Western security sources appeared shocked by the ease with which the suspected al Qaeda bombers evaded heightened security in Algiers. “The fact they’ve been able to get this done is regarded as highly unusual,” a U.S. official said.
One European official said the targeting of a U.N. building — in line with past al Qaeda statements denouncing the world body as an agent of injustice against Muslims — was a significant new departure for al Qaeda. It has previously focused on Algerian state symbols and foreign energy workers.
Editing by Ralph Gowling