Four explosions kill at least 24 people in Casablanca

Saturday, May 17, 2003

RABAT, Morocco -- Terrorists exploded four bombs in the coastal city of Casablanca late Friday, killing at least 24 people and damaging the Belgian consulate, a Jewish center and a Spanish restaurant, officials said.

At least three of the blasts were from car bombs, and the fourth appeared to be detonated by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt, according to security officials in this North African nation.

The official news agency MAP reported that three suspects were apprehended, without elaborating.

"They were terrorists, suicide bombers," Interior Minister Mustapha Sahel told reporters. "These are the well-known signatures of international terrorists."

The attacks came just days after deadly terrorist bombings in Saudi Arabia, prompting cities across the globe to brace for the possibility of attacks by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, though it was not immediately known who was behind the Casablanca attacks.

Almost simultaneously

The blasts appeared to take place almost simultaneously just after 9 p.m., killing at least 24 people and leaving several others injured, the Interior Ministry said. The explosions damaged the Belgian consulate, a Spanish restaurant and a Jewish community center, officials said. There were burnt-out vehicles outside some of the sites.

Two policemen outside the heavily damaged consulate were killed and a security guard was hospitalized, Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuws told the Belgian news agency Belga.

The Atlantic coastal city, Morocco's economic heart about 60 miles southwest of the capital of Rabat, was a scene of pandemonium with police and rescue workers rushing to the sites and night clubs and restaurants shutting down almost immediately.

But Sahel said later that the situation was under control. "All steps have been taken throughout the territory to ensure order, calm and security in the face of this criminal enterprise."

Joanne Moore, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman in Washington, said no U.S. government facility was targeted.

U.S. counterterrorism officials in Washington had warned Friday of a coordinated effort by al-Qaida to strike lightly defended targets worldwide, citing the bombings earlier this week in Saudi Arabia as well as threats in Africa and Asia.

Morocco, with a population of about 30 million, has mostly Sunni Muslim people with small Christian and Jewish communities. Both Belgium and Spain have large Moroccan immigrant populations.

Morocco, considered a moderate Arab nation, has been a staunch U.S. ally. But it expressed regret that a peaceful solution could not be found in the Iraq crisis.

The Moroccan public turned out in large numbers for anti-war protests against the Iraq war, including one in the capital, Rabat, in March that drew 200,000 people.

Morocco postponed municipal elections in April by several months -- a move widely seen as an effort to thwart the rise of Muslim fundamentalist parties. Analysts have predicted that Muslim fundamentalist parties will make massive gains.

Sahel accused the attackers of trying to "intimidate and destabilize a democracy."

Monday's suicide blasts in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, killed 34 people at three foreigners' housing compounds.

Three Saudis were arrested in Casablanca last year for leading an al-Qaida plot to attack U.S. and British warships. The three were given 10-year prison sentences in February by a Moroccan court.

The Saudis are also accused of having planned to blow up a cafe in Marrakech, a major tourist destination, and attack tourist buses in Morocco.

All three Saudis admitted under interrogation that they had been trained in the use of weapons and explosives at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. and British authorities had warned of threats in East Africa, particularly Kenya, and in southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia. U.S. officials also received an unconfirmed report that a possible terrorist attack may occur in the western Saudi city of Jiddah.

Al-Qaida has suffered serious blows in recent months, including the capture of alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But senior al-Qaida leaders were thought to be hiding in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, U.S. officials said.

In another North African country, an explosion on April 11, 2002, tore apart sections of a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, killing 21 people, mostly foreign tourists. The blast has been linked to al-Qaida.

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